Chronicling Budget Cuts: Narrating Institutional Memory in the 21st century

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts thinking about the recent round of budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Go read part 1part 2, and part 3 if you find this interesting.

One of the little things that working on the Bakken oil boom has taught me is that history is awkwardly situated to deal with the 21st century. Historians have long preferred to think of themselves as working in the “long present,” but the speed of change (and capital) in the 21st century has pushed us to think harder and work faster to keep relevant. Our long-standing practice of deliberate reading and our veneration for documents feels upset by the ephemeral blur of digital communication and the decentralization of media. If the speed of the present and the distributed and ephemeral nature of historical evidence aren’t challenges enough, we are also beset by a crisis of agency which has opened the door to objects, people, groups, even such abstractions as the environment and time has exerting agential weight in the construction of the future. As someone with largely philological training and still prone to look to the “Classics” to understand the two centuries worth of modernity, the changes have been bewildering. 

That being said, history has to adapt, and I’ve got to thinking that the budget crisis at the University of North Dakota offers an opportunity to figure out how our discipline can move at the speed of the present. The current (and by current, I mean the last couple of years) budget crisis offers a few key challenges and opportunities.

1. Evidence. The body of evidence explaining the budget cuts is highly distributed and ephemeral. Last week, for example, each division and college released another round of draft versions of their budgets here. But this clearly is not an archival location (and these are the second drafts of their budgets; I have copies of the first drafts, but I’m not entirely sure that they are still available publicly). These are pretty basic documents, but I’d struggle to find the budgets released just a year ago (although I’m sure it’s possible) for the first round of budget cuts. Moreover, these “official” documents only tell part of the story.

A simple search of my email for the word “budget” has produced thousands of documents and the prospect of a public records request to the institution for, say, all of the President Schafer’s and President Kennedy’s emails on budget cuts would produce literally thousands more. This is not even considering the correspondence at the level of the deans and departments and divisions, and various documents – minutes, agendas, memos, and the like – that spew forth from complex institutions on a daily basis.

More essential yet is a recording of the human cost of budget cuts. Since the “cutting time” began last year, there have been heartbreaking testimonials offered at public fora, outbursts at faculty senate meetings, and innumerable stories, anxieties, and conversations in the hallways, offices, and conference rooms across campus. Particularly high-profile stories sometimes appear in the media, but most of the impact of budget cuts on individuals do not make it into the Grand Forks Herald or an official email.

Fortunately, there are easy – and anonymous – ways to collect the stories of the budget crisis. One of my favorite digital history projects of the past decade was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank which used Omeka to collect people’s stories of hurricane Katrina and Rita. Similar projects have used Omeka to document the stories of 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shootings, and the developers of Omeka have shown a strong awareness of the need to protect user anonymity

The trick is with any project like this to get people to contribute.

2. The Narratives. Producing a body of evidence will not be enough, of course. Individuals will have to take on the task of using this evidence to produce narratives of the budget cutting process. There will not be just one story, and it will not be a story that can accommodate all sources of evidence. From the perspective of historical methodology, the immediacy of the crisis, our commitment to institutions and individuals, and our larger view of the goal of higher education and the state will undoubtedly shape the kinds of stories that we can tell.

The plurality of voices, stories, and perspectives is the key strength of a project like this. As a historian, I recognize that our values and commitments appear through how we speak about the past both informally and as professional practitioners. By navigating, however selectively, the deluge of evidence, we present more than simply a view on how the budget cuts happened, but we seek to identify the key moments in the process and outcomes that we hope will shape future considerations. Historians, through analyzing the record of complex events, produce a template for future actions. Identifying through analysis and narrative, the problems and successes within the process will shape the future.

3. Memory and Forgetting. As I began to mull a project like this over in my head, I looked around for recent models that presented university budget cuts as more than simply a policy and planning issue. I wanted something that introduced a more open-ended and multi-vocal oral history or even ethnography to budget cuts in higher education and didn’t find much in my admitted hasty literature search.

What struck me is how crucial institutions and institutional records are to the process of remembering and forgetting things like the trauma associated with budget cuts. Laws and rules ensure that policy decisions get recored carefully and archived in their overwhelming detail, but the human cost is often lost to the informality of the moment. As a result, budget cuts appear in the administrative record as impersonal policy decisions without the complexities of their human cost. This is an intended consequence, of course, of institutional work. It occludes pain and emotional through the rationality of its structure, and while this structure is necessary, as a historian, I can’t help but think that our responsibility is to complicate the neatness of administrative authority.

The additional benefit of the personal side of budget cuts is that they can make the massive deluge of administrative evidence legible for the future. In effect, the personal side of budget cuts can curate the administrative evidence by marking those documents that had an impact on individuals within the university community. This curation would function as a way to ensure that we both narrate and remember the unfolding of the budget crisis in a way that will inform future decisions both in North Dakota and elsewhere, communicate the human cost to a wider audience, and make the experience of the budget cuts accessible to a future generation.

Finally, years ago, I wrote a history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota, and it was very much an institutional history. The reason for this is that the university archives are a trove of administrative documents, but preserve very little in the way of personal encounters with UND’s campus, institutions, and individuals. This is both sad and rectifiable, but we have to think of our experiences at UND as contributing to the history and fabric of the place. This involve being proactive and making sure that they are recorded, curated, and narrated.

If you’re interested in being part of a project to document the budget cuts at UND, drop me a line here or on social media or over email. You know how to find me.

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

This week saw days of almost 50 degrees, nights that dipped below zero, and forty mile per hour winds that shook buildings on campus and toppled trucks. Just three hours west of here, the Empire Builder was stuck in a snow drift for almost three days! So, spring is here in North Dakotaland.

But so is spring break, so I’ll enjoy ten days of more or less uninterrupted writing, reading, and layout work.

Enjoy the days getting longer as well as some quick hits and varia:

It was all a dream
I used to read Word Up magazine
Salt’n’Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine
Hangin’ pictures on my wall
Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl

Hakeem Jefferies (D-NY) paid tribute to Notorious B.I.G. on the floor of the House of Representatives on the 20th anniversary of his death. While they’re cutting the National Endowment for the Arts pour a bit out this weekend for Notorious B.I.G. and the poetry (and music) of city streets that will be just fine. 

Birthdays were the worst days
Now we sip champagne when we’re thirsty! 

Three Things Thursday

I know, this is getting to be kind of lame, but whatever… I have a few fun little posts for this week that I’ll bring together here.

Bakken Goes Bust

First, everyone should go and read my buddy Kyle Conway’s recent work on the Bakken. He and I have been talking lately about producing something that discusses how the Bakken Goes Bust. In many ways, this is a follow up and expansion of our 2016 edited volume, The Bakken Goes Boom (2016).

So far, he’s written two posts with the hope that other people chime in, but as we’ve discovered, things are never that easy. So we’ve chatted a bit about a virtual conference on the topic, and I think that might work, but we’d have to figure out exactly how to structure it. 

The UND Writers Conference

The UND writers conference is the highlight of every spring here in the North Dakotaland. Even when I don’t love the theme or the speakers, the event is amazing. This year, I do like the them “Citizen” so check out the program and plan to wander over to UND’s campus. Here’s the director talking about this year’s conference.

It looks great.

American School of Classical Studies at Athens Annual Meeting

One of the strangest and (sometimes) wonderful things about archaeology is that archaeological knowledge disseminates in a wide range of ways. The annual meeting of the foreign schools in Athens is one of the bests ways to learn about ongoing archaeological work as each school summarizes the work of its projects over the course of the year. This information comes out in advance of international conference papers, published reports, peer-reviewed articles, and, certainly, final publication. There is something profoundly local about the practice of the annual meetings and the practice of presenting the results of the year in Athens ties the provenience of objects and the location of sites to the public venue where results and analysis are first disseminated.

I remember the first times I went to the annual meeting and the feeling that I had “insider” information that was not immediately available to people living outside of Athens. There was a feeling that archaeology was about being in that place.

 Of course, technology has changed this (and I thought about this change in a more systematic way here). You can watch the American School of Classical Studies’ Annual Meeting live stream here. It’s tomorrow at 7 pm EET (or 11 am CST). 

The Medieval Countryside at a Regional Scale in the Western Argolid and Northeastern Peloponnesus

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a call for papers for a panel  on the Medieval Countryside at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting next January.

Life intervened and we missed the deadline to submit a paper. Fortunately, the organizer, Effie Athanassopoulos was merciful and nudged the deadline a bit for us.

Here’s our abstract:

The Medieval Countryside at a Regional Scale in the Western Argolid and Northeastern Peloponnesus

Dimitri Nakassis, University of Colorado
Sarah James, University of Colorado
Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University
William Caraher, University of North Dakota

The study of the Medieval Mediterranean is paradoxical. On the one hand, scholars have continued to define the master narrative for the Medieval and Byzantine periods in the Mediterranean through politics and church history. On the other hand, few periods have seen as concerted an effort to understand the life and experiences of non-political classes from villagers to monks, mystics, and merchants. At the risk of simplifying a complex historiography, historians of the Annales school pioneered the study of everyday life in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. At the same time, Byzantine historians have drawn influence from concepts of cultural materialism to critique the co-development of particular economic and political systems and to recognize the fourth to fourteenth century as a period of rural transformation. This work has found common ground with landscape archaeologists who since the 1970s have sought to emphasize long-term, quantitative methods within tightly defined regional contexts to understand the tension between local and regional developments in the Medieval the countryside.

Recent work in the Peloponnesus and central Greece by the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, The Argolid Exploration Project, the Boiotia survey, the Methana Survey Project among others, provides a methodologically-sophisticated, regional perspective on the Medieval countryside that is almost unprecedented in the Mediterranean. This paper add to this existing body of regional evidence based on three seasons of the Western Argolid Regional Project. From 2014-2016, this project documented 30 sq km of the Inachos river valley through highly intensive pedestrian survey. This work has revealed significant post-Classical activity ranging from Late Antique habitation to 13th century settlements and Venetian towers. These sites derive greater significance from both the impressive body recently published fieldwork on the countryside of the northeastern Peloponnesus and the well-documented histories of the urban centers of Argos, Nafplion, and Corinth. The existence of both rural and urban contexts in this region offers a unique opportunity to consider the tensions between town and country and rural life and urban politics in the post-Classical centuries. The result is a study of the Medieval countryside that probes the limits of the long-standing and largely urban and political master narrative while also demonstrating significant regional variation.


NVAP II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside

It was pretty exciting to read through one of the most eagerly await archaeological volumes of the last decade, Effie Athanassopoulos’s Nemea Valley Archaeological Project II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside (2016) published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The book is impeccably produced with lots of color, glossy pages, well-set and proofed texts, meticulous detail, and fine illustrations, maintaining the ASCSA’s standing as the most consistently elegant of the major archaeological publishers. 

The book itself is a hybrid, bridging the gap between the great second wave survey projects in Greece and more mature, contemporary attitudes to landscape and intensive pedestrian survey. Traditionally, intensive surveys in Greece are published in one of two ways: a series of articles dedicated to methods and particular periods or in a single, massive tome which approach the landscape in a diachronic way through various methods. Effie’s book is a single volume dedicated to the Medieval period from an intensive survey, and in this way is rather unique (or at very least comparable to F. Zarinebaf, J. Bennet, and J. L. Davis. 2005. A Historical and Economic Geography of Ottoman Greece: The Southwestern Morea in the 18th Century (2005)). Moreover, unlike Zarinebaf, Bennet, and Davis, NVAP II is strictly archaeological with only very cursory references to texts.

After an introduction of less than 60 pages, most of the book is dedicated to the intensive documentation of individual sites. This includes large and important 12th-13th century settlement site called “Site 600″ or Iraklio/Medieval or Turkish Fountain which extended over 34 ha and produced nearly 1000 potentially Medieval sherds as well as much smaller sites sometimes producing little more than a handful of Medieval fineware sherds. A number of the sites are associated with standing churches with a number of them (e.g. Site 501 and Site 509) also preserving evidence for agricultural production. What is interesting is that these sites are presented as from a survey archaeologists’ perspective with survey unit illustrations, ceramics, and brief descriptions that make almost no reference to standing architecture. In this way, Effie’s book differs from, say, Christopher Mee and Hamish Forbes’ Methana survey volume where significant attention was given to churches as architectural objects that stood apart – to some extent – from artifact level survey work. The significance of this approach in NVAP II is that it marks a shift in emphasis for Medieval archaeology in Greece away from its traditional focus on ecclesiastical architecture and toward the more mundane world of settlement. In this way, this book manifests a kind of confidence in the work of the survey and landscape archaeology which sets its own priorities and agenda without deferring too much to the past practice. 

That being said the majority of this volume is a well-presented site catalogue. This reflects in some ways the priorities of second-wave survey projects in Greece which were feeling their way forward from traditional gazetteers produced through extensive survey toward artifact level and distributional analysis. The greatest shortcoming of the book is the lack of distributional perspective that brings together the landscape of the Nemea Valley project into a single, methodologically integrated whole. While early articles from NVAP have stood as a significant contributions to the development of intensive pedestrian survey methods, this volume does not seem to return to methodology in a substantial way. This probably speaks the maturity of intensive survey in that not every presentation of survey results need be detailed treatment of methods and procedures. At the same time, I wonder whether some attention to methods might have given this book a broader relevance to current conversations about intensive survey. For example, the visibility of certain types of Medieval pottery, almost certainly shaped the kinds of landscapes that intensive survey recognized. Site size has prompted extensive methodological reflection over the past four decades and relates directly to how we understand function in the landscape. Geomorphology, routes and paths, micro-regional variations in climate, vegetation, and soils, all have shaped the distribution of artifact, settlements, and ultimately people across historical landscapes. So as much as this book reflects the growing confidence and autonomy of intensive survey as a mode for understanding the landscape, it also reflects an earlier tradition of site-based documentation with lavish catalogues, site maps, and illustrations. 

In both ways, it represents a significant contribution to the field.

Morale, Academic Taylorism, and the Budget

This is the third in a series of blog posts on the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota and part of a fragmentary treatise on the history and function of higher education. Go read part 1 and part 2 if you find this interesting.

Last week, some colleagues and I had an informal get together at a local brew-pub in an effort to elevate morale in the current budget crisis here at the University of North Dakota. There was some griping and sympathizing, but mostly it was just fellowship and laughs. 

The exercise of convening that event got me thinking more seriously about the current morale situation on campus. As one might imagine, morale is low, humor and patience is in short supply, and sincerity, sensitivity, and anxiety is brimming over. Hardly a day goes by without some new rumor, new (and bizarrely proscriptive) policy change, and bad news. Reading emails from anyone other than students has become a soul crushing enterprise and the persistent drumbeat of dread has turned campus into miserable place. We feel it, our students feel it, and I’m absolutely sure that our administrators feel it.

To be clear, I am not writing about this as yet another faculty member complaining that no one brings us flowers and candies to congratulate us for doing our job. I’m writing this as someone who is watching campus morale impair the ability of the university to function properly. I’ve seen anger, frustration, and desperation suck the life out of meetings before they can be productive. An absence of empathy across departments and between faculty, administrators, and students undermine trust. And I regularly witness a sense of desperation corrode our ability to communicate and even just interact. On a day-to-day level, this sucks. In the longterm, this will substantially disrupt the campus community’s ability to move forward and to rise to various challenges that we’re facing in the present.

The responsibility for boosting morale is not simply something that administrators should do, but also something that faculty (and even students) need to engage. We’re all in this together and our ability to interact with a modicum of trust, empathy, and shared interests will make moving forward much more likely.

In keeping with my little series on the University of North Dakota budget woes, I want to propose a series of informal observations that might guide both faculty and administrators moving forward. I’m not so naive to think that people will read and embrace these observations, but maybe this is a step toward documenting how the budget crisis is experienced on campus and in my mind. 

1. Recognizing morale problems as problems. A couple of years ago, a colleague from the system office asked me what was going on with morale on UND’s campus. I didn’t really have a response except to agree that it was, indeed, low, and the low morale was hampering our ability to get things done as a campus community. (I sometimes wonder whether the difference between UND and our southern neighbor North Dakota State University is that NDSU has better morale making it easier for campus to work together to address challenges.)

Since the start of the current budget paroxysms, there has been no conversation on campus about morale (or at least no conversation that was expansive enough to come to my little corner of the world). In general, it seems, we are all accepting that these are dark and challenging times in which the university is beset by inevitable and insurmountable enemies both in the legislature and in the administrative offices. There is a superficial nod to the idea that campus cuts are a chance to re-imagine higher education at UND or even a worthy adversary for faculty itching for a challenge, but none of this reached my level without a cynical smirk and wink. The absence of genuine sincerity (or the ability to present a genuine sincerity) has made it impossible to buy into the challenges of budget cuts and the project of reworking campus programs (which is almost certainly necessary, if not particularly desirable). As a result, almost everything happening on campus is seen as being imposed by some body or individual outside of the rank-and-file faculty, and it fosters a feeling that most people on campus are not working together to advance the goals of the university.

This is probably not true, but it feels true.

Morale is a problem on campus.   

2. Rhetoric and Practice. The problem with campus morale is obviously complex. I remain convinced that some of it can be related to how we talk about faculty research, teaching, and even our students. We have become very concerned with “data.” Without unpacking the structural significance of this approach to faculty productivity and tracking students through their educational experiences (see below), I might gently suggest that few people like to have their lives work reduced to the status of “data.”

This maybe seem like a minor or even superficial thing, but we should never underestimate the power of language to crush spirits and create an unnecessarily adversarial tone in otherwise businesslike relationships between administrators and faculty and students. I’ve been to one too many meetings where administrators have described the academic, creative, and scholarly output of faculty as “data” around which decisions will be made. This way of speaking reduces projects conducted over decades to a series of simple outputs, and while we all know that results matter more the process, even the best scholars and teachers have far more failures than successes. Most of our time as faculty is dedicated to figuring out what went wrong and having our research reduced to the few times when things went right does not convince us that administrators understand the research process (even if they do!).

At the same time, faculty easily refer to students as “FTEs” and use various online services and programs to track retention, performance, and even “learning” of a sort. We assess, warn, track, and quantify student engagement across campus replicating the language of administrative assessment in our own discussion of the messy classroom encounter. This is equally unhelpful. Students do not want to be turned into nameless, faceless, FTEs, and using impersonal terms like “retention” and “assessment” shape how we think about our work and students and, over time, it will erode the potential for empathy.

In short, we need to be more careful – particularly in times when we all need to be working together – in how we talk about each other’s activities on campus. It’s a simple thing, but it would go a long way to creating the impression that we care about what each other does.    

3. Constructing Taylorism. That being said, I do understand and even appreciate the need for some “scientific management” on the university campus. Universities are large and complex organizations managed by a bewildering series of state and federal policies, local rules and procedures, and requiring oversight to ensure stakeholders that we are, indeed, doing what we set out to do. A certain level of academic Taylorism ensures that the campus community has the information necessary to make informed decisions and, more broadly, to understand what a university does. This is not something we invented at UND and not something that is inherently bad.  

In fact, Taylorism can be good especially when it promotes a kind of small-scale, efficiency in practice that parallels the kinds of small adjustments and reflexive behaviors that we regularly develop as researchers, teachers, and administrators. Learning from practitioners across campus ways to do our jobs more efficiently is part of what we do as academics and improvements in efficiency can benefit everyone.

The issue with academic Taylorism – at least as it is implemented here on UND’s campus – is that instead of building from faculty practice, it has tended to build from administrative practice. In other words, software like the dreaded “Digital Measures,” which serves to collect faculty productivity data across campus, does not model itself on existing faculty practices (e.g. like our annual reviews or our routine work to update our CV), but rather on administrative needs. Instead of streamlining faculty work, this process multiplies it. Worse still, the software is clunky and inelegant and largely incompatible with existing work habits making it not only additional work, but unpleasant and inefficient additional work. There is no benefit to an individual faculty member and every hour spent using Digital Measures is an hour not spent teaching or doing research.

So not only does software like this reduce what we do to “data,” but it also requires significant additional time to complete. Instead of Taylor’s promise of scientific increases in efficiency, these processes slow down and dehumanize faculty labor. Rather than providing faculty with more efficient ways to demonstrate our productivity, it erodes morale. This is bad.

What is worse is that these practices have become so standardized across university campuses that we no longer recognize their pernicious impact of faculty (and I’d argue student) motivations. So instead of pushing faculty to demonstrate their productivity or finding efficiencies, it make us want to engage the shared mission of the campus with less enthusiasm, with greater cynicism, and with far less energy. This is but one example of academic Taylorism run amok. Assessment protocols, reams of paperwork, and redundant processes that all serve to make someone else’s job easier cascade through university workflows burdening each step of the process with squandered energy and making the entire system both less efficient and more driven by compliance than shared interest.
4. Morale and Empowerment. Happy people work harder and, more importantly, happy people care! The entire campus community are being asked to engage in challenging work in depressing conditions, and the inevitable outcome of this work is being asked to do “more with less.” If we are going to maintain our existing performance in teaching, research, creative activities, and engagement with our community and the state, we’re going to have to be motivated. This requirement should not be misconstrued as the selfish needs of Gen-Xers or the hyper-sensitivity of millennial or some other generational moral failing. Instead, this is the stuff of good management and contemporary practice. After all, there is a reason why Google hires master chefs to cook for their employees and Apple provides a massive array of services at their corporate campuses. 
As universities are being called upon to function more like businesses, we need to look more critically at contemporary business models to understand how top tier corporation work to keep their employees happy. (As a hint, they do not ask them constantly to do more with less). Instead, they focus on making employees feel valued, they do what they to create spaces for innovation (like Google’s late and lamented 20% policy), and they work to undermine enough corporate structure to promote a sense of empowerment. (And I do recognize that for every innovative and agile start up, there is a more hierarchical and equally successful counterpart, and that the absence of hierarchy and the abundance of unstructured space and relationships can lead to abuse and inefficiency.)
Universities, on the other hand, have been stuck in mid-20th century corporate models often grounded in manufacturing or traditional managerial corporate culture. While these models functioned admirably when times were fat (especially in radically asymmetrical economic situation that characterized the post-WWII economy), they struggled to be agile, nimble, innovative, and profitable when the going got tough. As a result, many of these companies are shadows of their former selves (GM, IBM, Xerox). I’m not blaming the failure of these corporate giants on the failure of employee morale, but trying to emphasize that the new corporate culture ™ has come to recognize that keeping employees happy is part of keeps them committed to the company’s larger goals (profits, innovation, et c.).
Morale builds a sense of shared mission and collaboration which makes it easier to put aside individual agendas and find ways to advance the greater good. This is not about platitudes, like “OneUND” or “Great to Exceptional,” but about valuing the work done across campus in an explicit and visible way.  
5. Morale and the Margins. A colleague from a similar university in a nearby state wrote to me in response to my last post on the budget cuts to reassure me that the squeaky wheel does, in fact, get the grease in the modern university. While I’ve never quite understood the motivations behind this, I’ve assumed that some of it comes from the tendency for dissatisfied or dysfunctional programs or faculty to take up a disproportionate amount of time. As a result, administrators (and even faculty) find the conceding to the needs of a few is the most efficient way to move forward with the more pressing, day-to-day, work of running a department, college, or division. 
This practice, of course, sends the wrong message and I suspect that administrators know this. At times when morale is low, the voices of the marginal, the rhetorically overbearing, and the confrontational become the dominant voices on campus because few people feel particularly committed to the larger campus community. In other words, we let the marginal occupy the center because we feel sufficiently alienated to do nothing to prevent this from happening. 
Whatever one things of taking time and resources to boost faculty (and staff and student) morale, it is hard to deny that many of the most strident voices on campus are less committed to speaking “truth to power” and more committed to occupying a vacuum created by deep seated apathy. Campus morale has the advantage of defining the margins and suppressing unproductive dissent. 
6. Celebrating Good Work. If the problems of morale on campus are fairly easily defined, the solutions to the morale problems are rather less complicated. For example, I proposed to an associate dean a weekly email sent to all members of our college that recognized the work of a faculty member or student. These could be simple and informal, but they demonstrate that someone (especially in the administration) both pays attention to things that we value and cares enough to congratulate us for doing good work.
When I was first hired at UND, there were a series of lectures both in the various colleges and on the campus level that featured faculty research. It was a bit of an honor to give one the president’s lectures or the be invited to present one’s research at a dean’s lecture. It brought the campus community together to do something more than just negotiate some policy change or provide feedback on some administrative initiative. These are low cost initiatives that could go a long way to reconstructing faculty morale.
My modest proposal: each dean, the provost, and the president, should send out one personal email a week congratulating a faculty member or student for their work, and then send a similar email to the campus community.  
7. Humor and Appropriating Dissent. One of the great tragedies of the Trump Era is the humorlessness of his particular brand of authority. The absence of humor on campus these days is totally soul crushing.
For example, a recent change in how are contracts were written asks that faculty provide titles for articles that they intend to submit over a particular academic year. These would obviously be provisional titles. This seemed to me to be a great opportunity for tomfoolery. I could imagine using these provisional article titles as a way to tease administrators for their initiatives (on UND’s campus, it’s rural health and drones… I’d envision a sudden uptick in provisional titles with those words in them “Early Christian Archaeology, Rural Health, and Drones: 21st-Century Perspectives.”). I was gleefully imagining silly titles for my contract when some colleagues humorlessly assured me that no one would read these sheets of paper. Great.
I had a similar response when I proposed a YouTube project in which faculty read various crazy proposals for higher education that came through the state legislature over the past few months. It would be modeled on “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” project. No takers. Crickets.
I’m not naive enough to think that humor will solve complicated problems of morale or budging, but the hope is that someone, somewhere on campus could do something to get us to laugh. There is an absurdity to higher education and anyone who has spent any time on a college campus knows it. It’s a space of perpetual adolescence where great discoveries and puerile behaviors share the same lab space, library cubicles, and classrooms. The recent struggles at UND have suppressed this reality and by stifling our ability to laugh (and by refusing to laugh at ourselves and each other), we are short circuiting the creative energies of the Bahkinian carnival that so characterizes campus life.
We can do better.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

There’s still a bit of crispness to the air here in North Dakotaland, but soggy, thawing days are promised for the weekend. The Formula 1 teams are testing, the long NASCAR season is underway, various NBA teams have begun to position themselves for the draft lottery, and summer cricket seasons in Australia has moved on to the subcontinent with the second Australia-India test. Spring break is just around the corner.

This is a good time of year.

Enjoy a little list of quick hits and varia:

IMG 0466

Migrant Dubai and the Bakken

I’ve been working my way through Laavanya Kathiravelu’s book, Migrant Dubai: Low Wage Workers and the Construction of the Global City (2016) thanks to the Kostis Kourelis Reading Group ™. In it, she unpacks the remarkable tension between the global stature of Dubai and its global population and the workers who literally construct this city. Drawing heavily on critiques of the particular brand of neoliberalism prevalent in the Arab World (where the state is a pervasively player in the local economy), she explores the complex strategies of exclusion and control present in this city-state that depends upon both wealthy and poor foreign workers to support its economy, but also seeks to manage the diverse cultural impacts that globalization brings to this conservative country.

I read this work primarily with an eye toward strategies used to accommodate outside workers in the Bakken during the most recent oil boom. While the comparison is not precise as guest workers in Dubai tend to be low-paid and participants in the Bakken boom are consistently middle class, the experience of both living in temporary housing and being excluded in various ways from full participation in the life of the community is intriguing to me. The author, for example, describes the challenge of even gaining access to low-wage worker housing in Dubai and the efforts made to keep this housing at the margins in order to protect Dubai’s affluent and cosmopolitan urban image. Interestingly, gated communities with carefully controlled (and centrally financed and constructed) complexes of apartments serve to insulate affluent foreigners working in extractive industries, finance, and educational sectors from the general population and low wage workers. In other words, practices of exclusion and control shaped the lived experience of both high and low wage worked, but in different ways.

It was also interesting that when Kathiravelu visited a very modest, low-wage workers hut at a work site, she noted that the occupants have taped pictures of affluent gated communities to the walls as motivation. A recent review of A. Ghosh’s Great Derangement, pointed out that the 21st century has experienced a telling inversion in who experiences the future first. For most of the 20th century, the wealthy experienced future in air travel, technologies, and conveniences. In the 21st century, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow and wealth impacts the world in more and more tangible ways, the poor experience the future first.

In Dubai, low-wage and affluent guest workers encounter a regime based on exclusion, surveillance, and transience. In the Bakken, workforce housing located workers in marginal spaces, gated communities, and sometimes on work sites, and the contingent experience of these workers and the spaces where they lived have demonstrated that domestically ideals associated with traditional middle class life are already deeply eroded. The parallels between the living conditions of middle class workers in the Bakken and low-wage workers in Dubai reminds us that global capital has a similar impact on the living conditions of workers the world over, and efforts both to control physically the movement of individuals and to require that they exist in ever more contingent conditions.    

Three Things Wednesday

I’ve been writing a bit frantically lately, and this morning, I don’t really feel it. So instead of some (in)coherent blogpost rant, I’ll offer three quick things that occupied my mind on my drive to campus this morning.

Forty Book February

This month was the first month in the history of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota that we sold 40 books (actually 41)! Selling paper books has always been a rather small part of what I do at The Digital Press, but as recent, middling figures for the sale for ebooks have shown, people love paper. (That being said, downloads of our books outpaced sales by about 10:1).

The strong February sales were driven in part by Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College, but almost every book in our catalogue got some love this month. 

What is more interesting (at least to me) is that Visions of Substance: 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology edited by myself and Brandon Olson is the only book that did not sell a copy, despite being the most widely cited book in The Digital Press catalogue with close to 10 citations in a wide range of books and journals (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Antiquity, Journal of Field Archaeology, Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization). I suspect the price ($24) has something to do with it and this was an unavoidable consequence of the color printing. Maybe the topic of the book, which was meant to capture a particular moment in time, made the book easily dated?

Immigrants and Emerson 

Here in the Northland, we’ve heard an alarming number of stories about immigrants crossing the rural border between the U.S. and Canada out of fear of deportation. Crossing the border by foot in the winter has cost some of these individuals fingers and toes and nearly their lives. This terrifying new reality has put a profoundly human and local face on the global refugee crisis and got me and my colleagues, Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis, thinking about whether an archaeology of these crossings could help us (and our communities) understand what we need to do to help people so desperate and afraid that they’d risk their lives to be free. Taking a page from Jason De León’s Undocumented Migration Project and our own experience working on the archaeology of the contemporary world, we’ve just begun to imagine ways in which we could realize an archaeology of care here in North Dakota.

We don’t have plans yet and recognize the need for collaboration on both sides of the border and the time and space to develop a thoughtful, humane, and systematic approach to the local side of a global problem. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that will help frame archaeology’s role in the ongoing crisis.

Threshold Concepts

The next big thing in pedagogy (at least here in North Dakota) seems to be threshold concepts. While I won’t pretend to understand the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of the idea, it seems to have something to with the idea or concept in a class (or even a discipline) that pushes a student from superficial bafflement to deep understanding. I like the idea because it so neatly describes the breakthrough point that most of us have experienced when studying, say, an language or a particularly tricky text that allows us almost suddenly to wrap our heads around what an author or even a culture is saying. The idea behind threshold concepts, from what I gather, is to recognize and foreground the understanding that creates this breakthrough experience.

A colleague got me thinking about the threshold concepts for history and how students think about arguments, facts, evidence, and theory. For many – even some of our M.A. students – history is about combining “facts” into arguments. This is a fine basic understanding, but runs the risk of essentializing historical evidence as static facts and viewing arguments as self-contained entities that do not rely on larger (and more complex) standards for their validity. After all, an argument is only as good within a particular regime of authority, style, discourse, and even political standing. 

Professionalization and Fragmentation

I’ve been thinking a good bit about professionalization lately, and this is largely in response to Dimitri Nakassis’s recent efforts to come to grips with the Future of Classical Archaeology (over a series of blog posts in preparation for a paper that he’ll deliver at a conference held at Smith College next week). One of Dimitri’s interests is the professionalization of Classical Archaeology and the resulting (relative) democratization of the discipline. 

As I thought about this more and more, I found myself interested in three questions:

1. How did professionalization of the disciplines across college campuses lead to greater inclusiveness?

My understanding of this narrative is that professionalization and industrialization went hand-in-hand with the latter setting standards for professional expertise based on the needs of industrialized economy. An engineer had to be qualified to perform certain tasks consistently and well. Disciplines established standards that vouchsafed for the expertise of an individual allowing employers to feel confident that a graduate from MIT and Easter North Dakota University had similar qualifications. While this is oversimplifying a complex process of change, the development of professional disciplines in response to economic needs and the increasingly complicated and specialized economic landscape rippled out across university and college campuses. As a result, even disciplines such as history, which did not have a direct and obvious tie to the industrial economy, developed a set of disciplinary standards that established the qualifications of an individual as a historian. This framework, then, shifted the writing of history from wealthy men of leisure to a professional class of university professors.

This process created a framework for a qualification-based system for establishing disciplinary knowledge, and these standards supported a more inclusive model for knowledge production. If disciplinary knowledge was based on certain “objective” criteria, then anyone who could achieve these criteria could claim the status of disciplinary practitioner. (And, I recognize that claims to “objectivity” or even impartiality were largely spurious, but the framework had emerged by the turn of the 20th century to accommodate academic knowledge production as a practice based on established professional criteria.).

2. Did this professional framework for the production of disciplinary knowledge lead to hyper specialization and fragmentation?

I recognize that today, disciplines represent an important bulwark to local administrative, economic, and political pressures on universities. At their strongest, disciplines maintain professional standards through complex accreditation procedures and clearly articulated policies that define qualified practitioners. These range from detailed descriptions (and even tests) designed to establish the kind of knowledge a qualified practitioner possesses to ethical guidelines. The loss of accreditation in a university program results in students who are not recognized professionally. Even disciplines, like history and Classics, that don’t have accreditation procedures have active professional organizations that work to establish standards for knowledge, best practices, and take ethical stands that represent professionals in the field.

Historically, the establishment of clear criteria for recognition as a disciplinary practitioner both anticipated industrialized practices that required specific expertise, but also projected this kind of specialization onto universities where these professional individuals were trained. In other words, disciplines required department and departments advocated for the value of their specialized knowledge and the university developed methods that allowed each discipline through their departments to manage the imparting of this specialized knowledge in the student. Within departments a similar effort to ensure that multiple areas of specialization existed creating an environment where the group of faculty worked together to produce a comprehensively educated student and professional. 

This kind of industrial specialization, evocative of the assembly line, coincided well with the establishment of clearly defined professional criteria for expertise in a particular field.  If the goal of the undergraduate education was to produced qualified professionals, the requirements for the faculty employed to produce these qualified individuals emphasized their mastery of specialized knowledge. In some ways, the complexity of the larger university environment where specialization reinforced autonomy encouraged faculty to become more specialized. If discrete knowledge was autonomous knowledge (and specialization the key to economic utility), then the key asset for an individual faculty member was distinct and specialized knowledge. It didn’t hurt that such distinct specialization was rather more easy to evaluate in determining an individual’s expertise. Moreover, it eliminated the messy task of determining whether someone was “right” or “wrong” in an assertion or argument, and shifted attention to the simpler task of determining whether some body of knowledge was “new” or not. After all the best speciality is something that no one else does, anywhere, ever.  

I think that I understand the pressures to specialize as a product of disciplinary knowledge production and industrial practices both on the larger economy and at the university. Part of the result of professionalization, then, was the narrowing of specialized knowledge. As the criteria for professional standing – both as a faculty member and a student – became more specialized, it became more democratic. Novelty of specialization emerged as a nearly universal criteria for evaluating mastery of a disciplinary knowledge, and this contributed to a more inclusive academy. 

3. The question then becomes whether our move toward transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or even anti-disciplinary knowledge threatens the larger professionalization and democratization process at universities?

This is where I get stressed out. On the one hand, few can claim that modern universities are less inclusive than they were at the turn of the 20th century. And this is a good thing. Moreover, the professionalization of university education was a major engine of innovation in the American economy over the past 100 years (along with, cough, war, but whatever). These are both good things, I think.

We can also observe how universities and colleges established to develop the workforce for particular states, regions, or even professions, have the deepest commitment to professionalization. Normal schools, established to train teachers, technical schools to prepare engineers, and law and medical schools to prepare doctors and lawyers had the clearly defined requirements for faculty to ensure that they produced skilled practitioners of their respective professions. To this day, hybrid universities, like the University of North Dakota, where I teach struggle to balance the need to produce “workforce” and the need to do bigger more globally and universally significant work. The former need pushes departments and programs to specialize – particularly in terms of skills – whereas the latter coaxes faculty to think more broadly. After all, human knowledge is not specialized or organized into tidy disciplinary and departmental boxes.

But as faculty push to escape their disciplinary silos they undermine the role of the discipline as both a promoter of (let’s say) impartial criteria establishing professional specialization and as a check against parochial pressures facing universities. Anti-disciplinary knowledge remains a kind of holy grail among those who want to transform higher education (e.g. Louis Menand), but it also has anti-democratic tendencies as well. As new economic, social, and political pressures melt away the disciplinary criteria for professional expertise, they also challenge the autonomy of disciplines, departments, and faculty who have long established the validity of their expertise both in the classroom and in the economy.  

One of the interesting trends that I think that I detect is that elite private and public institutions have attracted faculty who move easily between disciplines and “disrupt” traditional standards of disciplinary knowledge production. Second and third tier schools, with their historical commitments to workforce development and traditional disciplinary knowledge production, continue to employ rather narrow – and perhaps even “traditional” – disciplinary specialists. In other words, some of the most interesting, exciting, and influential faculty are challenging the limits to disciplinary knowledge even as we recognize that disciplinary knowledge was the framework for professionalization and its attendant benefits of inclusion. 

This is especially significant in the 21st century as higher education has entered a period of particular precarity. Do we embrace the challenge of an anti-disciplinary world at the risk of exposing ourselves to the vagaries of parochial and political interests?