Friday Varia and Quick Hits

After a chilly week it looks like we’ll have a bit of respite for the weekend with temperatures soaring into the mid-30s. I’m really looking forward to everything melting just a little bit and then refreezing in the morning into glistening ice. But it could be worse, my wife quickly reminded me.

The BoysLazy Sunday (Photo by Susie)

Altas.ti and the North Dakota Man Camp Project

For the past few years, I’ve been fretting about how to begin to analyze the large body of relatively unstructured data collected from our research in the Bakken oil patch. This includes thousands of photographs, hours of video, interviews, and various notes. Most of our preliminary analysis has drawn upon our field notes and selective and impressionistic readings of the data that we collected. This is not to suggest that our analysis is wrong, but it lacked a certain amount of nuance in part because we were overwhelmed by the quantity of data that our methods produced.

The issue is partly because we decided early on to collect data at the regional level largely because we we were not entirely sure what our sites would look like and how to best document them. After a few trips, however, we had identified over 50 workforce housing sites across the region that clearly housed workers associated with the oil boom, had a diversity of units (generally RVs) and approaches to life in “the patch,” and showed signs of change through time. We then used photography and video to document these sites over the course of numerous short field seasons of only a few days. The resulting archive captured the dynamism of the Bakken oil patch through time and a remarkable level of detail about individual workforce housing sites and units.

Over the summer, I had a few fascinating conversations with a Colorado Ph.D. student, Erin Baxter, whose dissertation research used Atlas.ti to organize and analyze photographs that formed the only historical record of a century-old excavation by Earl Morris in the American southwest. She explained to me how she used the software to track various features of the excavation through multiple photographs. Atlas.ti also made it easier for her to organize and analyze the photographs including certain features or chronological indicators that would allow her to reconstruct the history of the excavation. (I’m sure it much more complex than what I described, but that was my take away!) 

This prompted me to write a little grant and get a copy of Atlas.ti (which isn’t cheap!) and to begin to use it to code my photographs from the Bakken. This week, I ran a pretty basic trial of 70 photos taken in October 2014. These photos produce the following list of codes which correspond either to features or conditions visible in the photographs:


The code list is still in a bit of flux and will undoubtedly be expanded, but after even just 70 photos, it is a pretty good summary of objects and conditions associated with workforce housing in the Bakken.

The photographs that produced this code list are group according to date and camp number and when possible by unit in a camp. This will allow me to consider changes through time and across different camps while also controlling for our tendency to take more photographs of particularly interesting units or units with substantial number of associated features and objects. While we are not coding images to produce explicitly quantifiable data, it looks like we can use the grouping function in Atlas.ti to allow us to document the distribution of features proportionately across our study sites.

Finally, Atlas.ti will also allow us to code video and text which we can also group according to site. With any luck this allows us to connect more explicitly our evidence from interviews and systematic video with our photographic documentation. 

So, stay tuned as I explore how Atlas.ti can create a more nuanced image of workforce housing during the Bakken boom. 

Crisis, History, and Graduate Historiography

For the last couple of years I’ve been teaching our required graduate courses here in the history department at the University of North Dakota. I’ve post my graduate historiography reading list to the blog fairly regularly and written a bit about what I do in the introduction to historical methods class, which is less of a methods course and more of a sweeping survey of graduate education and a chance to introduce the new graduate students to my colleagues in the department. 

One of the themes throughout both courses is the “crisis in the humanities.” On the one hand, I have tried to demonstrate that discourse of crisis in the humanities is well over a century old and may, in fact, reflect certain basic incompatibilities between the structure of higher education and most (generally older) traditions of humanistic practices. In particular, the fragmented industrial design of the “modern” university runs counter to certain tendencies in the humanities toward synthesis, integration, and totalizing approaches to our world. The emphasis on skills at the modern university is challenging for humanists who tend to be ratter more agnostic toward any particular skill set and averse to methodology more broadly. The desire for universities to produce economically useful individuals finds little traction among scholars and students of the humanities who look beyond the economy for meaning. In other words, the persistent sense of crisis among humanists is baked into the poor fit in the university itself.

As a result, we should always acknowledge it, but avoid allowing the sense of crisis to undermine what it is that we do as scholars and students of the humanities. I tend to see our place within the university as an opportunity to offer sustained dissent and to resist pressures to take extraordinary actions that might undermine the basic integrity of the humanities project. For example, I don’t mind if students learn particular skills in my classes, but I refuse to articulate what I do as a skill-based discipline. Likewise, I don’t mind if my class or research has a massive impact on students or my field (it seems unlikely to happen though), but my goal is to grind away at small problems in a deliberate incremental way.

This is all well and good, on the one hand.

On the other hand, we learned last week that our graduate program almost certainly will be defunded for the foreseeable future. This is a bummer on many levels. It hurts existing students in our program the most, of course, but it also damages the university’s reputation as offering a strong base in the liberal arts. It worries me and my colleagues because it speaks to a lack of commitment to the humanities on campus, and a shift from a funded and supported graduate program to one based on unpaid overloads. 

It also undermines my claim that the humanities have always been in crisis because it makes the crisis real and personal to our students. 

So I played along and told them that I was willing to trash the current syllabus and revise the class to accommodate their (and our shared) sense of crisis, but they had to propose an alternative. After floating quite a few ideas – almost all of them intriguing – two major ideas came to the top. First, they clearly wanted more of a grounding in “classical” historiography. That is, they wanted to read some Herodotus, Thucydides, and other ancient authors, rather than spending so much time considering the historiography of the 20th and 21st centuries. Considering the entire class was American historians (more or less), I found this both heartwarming and a bit troubling. Was this a retreat from scholarship that was immediately relevant to our discipline today and a retreat to the comfortable and conservative confines of familiar faces? This is not to suggest that we can’t learn a tremendous amount from reading Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus carefully, but what specifically do they hope to take away? Do they hope to find a context for the suddenly very real 21st century crisis in the humanities?

The second, response was that in the place of an individual paper at the end of the semester, they’d prefer to write a kind of manifesto that articulates the value of graduate education in History at UND. I’m going to suggest that they do this in a public way and solicit comments from folks in our program and outside the program. So, stay tuned.   


Follow-Up on Mid-Career Convergence

I had some really enjoyable feedback on my blog post from yesterday. Some of it considered the arguments that I was making in the blog, but much more of it took as a point of departure my status as a mid-career faculty member. Putting aside the arrogance of assuming that my career would continue for at least as long as it has (and recognizing that this is most uncertain in days of declining budgets and interest in the humanities), I was interested in the number of folks who expressed similar anxiety that their research had proliferated around divergent lines over the first half of their career, and they were struggling to pull them together into a unified whole.

I don’t mean this post to ask anyone “weep for tenured, mid-career faculty in the humanities,” but to explore some of the realities that readers of my blog expressed to me. This is the situation as I see it:

1. Diversified Portfolios. When I reflect the activities in which my colleagues and I are engaged, they are remarkably diverse. As we discussed on a recent podcast, it’s not unusual at all for a mid-career faculty member to have research in a number of different locations, different periods, and different topics. We diversify for a range of reasons. Some diversity is grounded in intellectual growth. Some diversity is grounded in the economic and professional realities of needing to cast the net wide to get publications, grant funding, and opportunities for advancement. Whatever the motivation, most of us are doing more than one thing at a time.

2. Skills over Substance. Part of the challenge that mid-career humanities scholars encounter is that the humanities at many universities are seen as a package of transferable skills. These could be broad and ambiguous – like the dreaded critical thinking or the condescending “advanced writing” – or could be specific and focused like GIS, particular languages, or computer coding. As a result, university culture often pushes mid-career humanities faculty to represent themselves as having particular skills, whereas disciplinary culture continues to privilege content expertise. Over time, this contributes to a fractured professional identity where what we know and what we can “do” tail off in seemingly divergent directions. For example, I am a content expert in the archaeology of Late Antique Greece and Cyprus, but I can “do” GIS, digital publishing, database management (of a very simple sort), and archaeological method.

3. Foggy Futures. When meeting with prospective majors, I tell them that a humanities education prepares them for jobs that “haven’t been invented yet” (which I always thought was a reference to a Darryl Dawkins quote about having “dunks that haven’t been invented yet” but I can’t seem to find that reference). I have no doubt that what I’m telling students is true, but as I move through the middle of my academic career I find the foggy future of academia and the humanities genuinely disconcerting. I have no idea if I will be valued for the skills that I have or the area knowledge or if I just show up on time, edutain students, and always wear pants. While I’m loath to let the whims of the university administration direct my career trajectory in its entirety, I’m not opposed to doing more to anticipate how to do my job well. The problem is, of course, no one knows what the future of the humanities holds in American universities. The devaluing of the humanities in the modern university is almost certainly a phase, but the future of the humanities is anything but clear.

Whatever one thinks of my view of convergence, the various comments that I got from colleagues across history has suggested mid-career faculty find themselves in a dynamic, if a bit confounding place in the academy. They have no lack of interests, expertise, and experience, but often find themselves bedeviled by a lack of professional direction at the very moment when they’re best poised to make a contribution to their field, their students, and their institutions. There are real efficiencies to be gained by working with mid-career faculty and helping them achieve, recognize, or just promote a kind of convergence in their work and their academic worlds. 

Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World

Every now and then I start to worry that my interests are diverging and running away in every direction and leaving me adrift. With budget cuts, possible changing in our teaching/research balance, a shift away from graduate education, and many of my field archaeology projects entire their final seasons, I find myself like many “mid-career” faculty bereft of morale, motivation, and, frankly, direction. So I get to thinking about convergence.

Every now and then, I read something or turn an idea around enough in my creaking, void-filled, mind that I get what other people have often described as an “idea.” This weekend, I had a glimpse of how several tracks in my academic and intellectual development might actually be converging around a theme (or two maybe?) that a few blog posts this weekend helped me to recognize more fully.

I’m going to try to trace these out this morning and to make sense of what my various projects are trying to do and say.

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have had some entertaining, and I hope useful, conversations centered on three concepts in archaeological research:

1. Punk Archaeology
2. Slow Archaeology
3. Archaeology of Care

I can’t take credit, really, for any of these, but I probably am as responsible as anyone for coining terms to describe them, and promoting the use of these terms.

Punk Archaeology celebrates the performative, DIY, and improvised aspects of archaeological field work and thinking. It has tended to focus a bit more on the archaeology of the contemporary world because this is where archaeological methods and practices have tend to break down when confronted with challenges such as modern abundance leading archaeologists to innovate on the fly, our work is less bound by the formal limits of the site and more publicly accessible, and contemporary observers are more willing to offer dissonant, alternative, and conflicting perspectives. As a result, punk archaeology – at its best – defamiliarized the familiar in everyday life (much like punk takes the basic structure of pop song and makes it something else) and familiarizes the unfamiliar in archaeological practice by putting it on display. In short, it can turn archaeology inside out.

Slow Archaeology is a critique of the role of technology in archaeological practice. I’ve argued that the Taylorist drive for efficiency has produced field practices that tend to fragment both how we describe material culture but also our experiences. At its most perverse, field work is reduced to “data collection” and digital tools are celebrated as ways to make the harvesting of “raw data” more efficient. There is no doubt that field work should be efficient and that technology will improve not only what we collect from the field, but also how we collect archaeological information. Slow archaeology, however, calls for us to maintain a space in archaeological field practice for analysis and interpretation and to be patient with these processes. Moving forward, I’d like to see slow archaeology celebrate integrative practices in archaeological field work that both bring together our fragmented techniques in the field and the information that these techniques produce.

Archaeology of Care. The archaeology of care is a term coined by my colleague Richard Rothaus and, like slow and punk archaeology, it offers a critical reflection on the practice and performance of archaeology. It stemmed from the observation that people who we encountered in the Bakken were genuinely moved by our archaeological and archaeological interest in their world and lives. While neither Richard nor I conceived of our project as a gesture to the people (or objects) that we studied, it became pretty obvious that archaeological work became a medium through which shared understanding of the past and the present are formed. For us at least, the archaeology of care was de-theorized and reflected our very practical experiences doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world.

It has taken me a while to recognize that these three moves in my archaeological thinking have focused on a number of shared themes centered largely on our practices in the field: (1) a focus on archaeology as performance and experience, (2) a tendency to recognize these experiences a bringing together people, data, and objects, and (3) a preference for DIY and an aversion to “technological solutionism” in its various forms.

These ideas have started to come together with another couple of “projects” that I’ve been slowly working on over the last few years. As readers of this blog know, I’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This emerged directly from my interest in punk archaeology (which became the first book from the press). It started as an experiment in DIY publishing and has slowly expanded into a project designed to the traditional fragmentation of the publishing process that separates the authors from the publishers. At my little press, we create an environment where authors, editors, and publishers work together to produce books at a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing, but with opportunities for more experimentation and control for the authors.

I’m pretty upfront with my authors that I am not a conventional publisher. As my more critical colleagues point out, my books tend to be a bit rough around the edges, my distribution channels remain a bit uncertain, and everything is essentially experimental. But for my authors and editors, this seems to work. If anything, I have more than enough books to keep my enterprise afloat, to hold my interest, and to keep me feeling that this is a meaningful extension of my approach to archaeology and archaeological knowledge production.

What prompted this sudden bout of introspection was a little article titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump” by Audrey Waters. Go read it (and comment if you want; there is the start of a little comment thread). To summarize a complex argument, trends in Ed-Tech data collection are troubling for a number of reasons. First, Waters critiques the basic philosophy that if we collect enough data on our students we can customize our educational practices to produce particular outcomes. Most thoughtful educators realize that this is not how teaching or learning works just as most thoughtful archaeologists do not think that intensified scrutiny and technologies in how we collect “all of the datas” will produce better archaeological knowledge more efficiently. (Do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s refinement of my critiques of data at his blog especially here and here and here.)

At the same time, we are lured by the temptation of easy digital data collection especially in online courses or in courses with substantial online components. Universities have developed sophisticated data collection schemes as their infrastructure has become digital and student interactions with almost all services is mediated by tools that collect data to produce increasingly comprehensive digital profiles of students. Even with the protections offered by FERPA, universities have vast quantities of data on students that can be leveraged internally to encourage practices that “better” serve students. Students are consumers and the university has indulged in all the conceits of online consumer culture. In place of a culture of care grounded in complex experiences of teaching and learning, the university as an institution has fragmented students into bundles and clusters of data that can be arranged to anticipate and serve student and administrative expectations. This has particularly toxic potential as calls to “reinvent education” often look to technologies to create the appearance of doing more with less, while obscuring the reality that less almost always means less in education.

What is more troubling for Waters is that the calls to “reinvent education” or to “innovate” almost always rest on the assumption that current practices are flawed. The temptation is to identify the problems with education through scrutiny of “big data” rather than attention to small, daily practices. With the lure of big fixes residing in big data issues of security and privacy abound. What is more terrifying still is that for public universities, this data could easily fall into the hands of politically motivated leaders either on campus or at the state or local levels who could use students and faculty data for purposes that run counter to many of our values as educators, scholars, and public servants. Waters evokes the always chilling specter of Nazi data collection as an example for how the state can mine “big data” for nefarious purposes.

To be clear, I don’t see slow archaeology, punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, or The Digital Press as a bulwark against Nazism or as explicitly political statements, but I would like to think that the common aspects of these projects represent a kind of resistance to some of the more troubling trends in academic practices and higher education these days. Calling for greater scrutiny of practice in a time of big data, promoting DIY among students and colleagues, and demonstrating how integration, and care, rather than fragmentation and “analysis” can produce meaningful and significant results. 

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

The Halcyon Days have left us here in North Dakotaland, and we seem to have returned to the cold, dark, budget-cutastic wintertime. That’s ok, though, because I think we all have lots of work to do this semester, this year, and forever into the future. Nothing like the idea of infinite work – stretching out endlessly in all directions – to keep you warm in the winter.

Before we get down to doing work, you should head over to The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota’s website and download a copy of Eric Burin’s Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College. Or if you don’t like FREE, you can get it from Amazon for just $8

On to a little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

IMG 0433

Picking the President in Paper and Other Press News

I’m happy to announce that sixth (or seventh) book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Eric Burin’s Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College, is now available in glorious, durable paper from It’s $8. That’s less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks or a six-pack of “craft beer.” 

The paper version of Picking the President is based on the slightly updated version (version 1.3 for those of you keeping track at home!) which was a general tidying up of the text. It is the same version that the individual offprints are based on just with a slightly different cover.

So head on over to The Digital Press now and download a copy or, if the intoxicating smell of the paper book is your thing, pop on over to Amazon and buy one

Ec project cover2 02cropped

If you’ve had about enough of the Electoral College and its consequences these days, then perhaps digital archaeology is more to your taste. If so, please check out Jody Gordon’s paper at the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting.

Jody provides a sweeping overview of the contents of a book that he edited with Erin Walcek Averett and Derek Counts, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology. The book has achieved almost 1000 downloads. If you want the paper version, you can grab it for $20 on Amazon


Mtp cover 3dirt

Finally, here is a sneak peak at a project that The Digital Press is assisting with. It’s an open access textbook on the History of Applied Science and Technology being developed by one of our Ph.D. Students Danielle Mead Skjelver and our historian of science here at the University of North Dakota, Hans Broedel. While the exact role for the Digital Press is not entirely clear, they are partnering with the Rebus Foundation to make this happen, and their process got a little positive attention this week. Check it out here.

Survey Methods and Efficiency

I was pretty excited to read S.T. Stewart, P.M.N. Hitchings, P. Bikoulis and E.B. Banning, “Novel survey methods shed light on prehistoric exploration in Cyprus,” in Antiquity 91 (2017) over lunch yesterday. First off, it had the words method, survey, and Cyprus in its title, which always hit me in the “feels.” Secondly, it deals with survey efficiency across complex landscapes on the island, and this reflects a challenge that we’ve faced on the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) over the past three field seasons.

Like any good article, it sent me through an emotional rollercoaster. 

Phase 1!

At first blush, I was horrified at the prospects of using predictive modeling to exclude certain units within a survey zone from intensive pedestrian survey in the name of efficiency. This felt like exactly the kind of technology-driven Taylorism that my recent scholarship has railed against. A slow archaeology embraces the kind of contingency, chance, and randomness that defies (at best) and taunts (at worst) efforts at efficiency. At its most absurd, this is discovering the most significant and time-consuming finds on the final scheduled day of field work.

The authors describe how they excluded units from survey because more recent geomorphological processes would obscure or destroy the late Pleistocene and early Holocene landscapes that would contain artifacts from the earliest periods of occupation on the island. In practice, survey archaeologists know that nothing is ever that simple. Modern, mechanized activity in the landscape is capable of removing meters of sediment to expose earlier paleosols, reworking the water flow across the landscape to erode through more recent deposits and revealing scarps and sites long buried, and even moving soils from elsewhere are depositing them and their accompanying artifacts in unexpected places. While all these contingencies require critical consideration when used to construct settlement patterns across the landscape, they can also provide unexpected windows into the past. 

Finally, intensive survey is about more than just looking for artifacts. By ignoring units that are unlikely to produce artifacts, they deprive themselves the opportunity to engage the landscape in a wholistic way. While it is fair enough observation that contemporary landscapes are different from earlier landforms, engaging the landscape compels the survey archaeology to recognize the diachronicity of all survey assemblages. An exposed late Pleistocene horizon is no less a component of the modern landscape than the earliest levels of the so-called Anthropocene.

In short, the urge to efficiency in their survey methods felt like a lost opportunity (at best) that risked insulating the archaeologist from the full context of even the earliest artifacts within a dynamic modern space. This modern space is where we as archaeologists encounter the landscape and produce our understanding the fine strands that connect our world to the ancient.

Phase 2!!

Then, I took a deep breath. What Stewart and her colleagues proposed is actually pretty cool. They created two models. One was a general model of landscapes in the Tremithos River Valley and the other was a more specific model based on their daily work in the field. This latter model was particularly interesting because it was iterative. Each day this specific model was updated with data from the field revealing the potential and power of a sophisticated GIS and data-management system.

More than that, my colleagues and I have argued in print that intensity matters in producing analytically meaningful survey assemblages. A system that takes into consideration data collected on the fly and allows the archaeologists to know where added intensity is likely to produce the most meaningful results – and if this system bore fruit – is exactly the kind of targeted and variable intensification that my colleagues and I have recommended in survey practice. So whatever efficiency is gained by using models, for me the gain is really in intensification. 

Phase 3!!!

Finally, sometime about 4:30 pm yesterday while I was on the second mile of my run, I realized that Stewart and her colleagues were probably not wrong in their approach. Having spent the last three seasons trudging through cobble-strewn fields along the banks of the Inachos river and finding nearly nothing (and learning as we went that some of these units did not preserve much of the ancient surface), I am acutely aware of the needs to treat the landscape with systematic efficiency. From sampling and collection strategies to field tactics, intensive pedestrian archaeology is inseparable from modern, industrial practices that extended from auto manufacturing the organization of universities. If industrial production can be designed around predictive models and machines that learn, then intensive survey will invariably absorb these same impulses and trend toward increased efficiency in the kind of archaeological knowledge that it produces. In fact, check out the first 100 or so pages of Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town (2014); we lay out explicitly how our sampling strategies balanced intensification and efficiency. 

In a very practical sense, much of our conversation over the past three on WARP is how to approach our landscape efficiently. We had the luxury of increasing the number of field teams every year and retaining our amazing group of team leader who develop more efficient field practices each season. As a result, we surveyed larger and larger amounts of territory each day and each week. This allowed us take risks and survey areas where we though it unlikely that we’d find significant artifacts scatters. This included steep, densely-vegetated, hill slopes as well as the valley bottom near the river where erosion and sedimentation conspired to obscure ancient surfaces.

Knowing what we know now about the geomorphology of the Inachos valley and the artifactual landscape (that is in hindsight), we probably would have deployed our survey teams differently. At the same time, walking the valley bottoms did prompt us to think more carefully about both modern land use and fragmentation as well as routes both along and across the Inachos river. These were important considerations as our survey was diachronic and all parts of the landscape could contribute to our larger arguments.

By the time, I was done processing this short article, I had come full circle. It’s a fine article and characteristic of the discourse in intensive pedestrian survey and reflective of both practical challenges and opportunities facing field work in the digital age. 

Lots to Read, just not here

These are busy days here in North Dakotaland. I’m working on the massive introduction that David Pettegrew drafted for the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, putting the finishing touches on the paper version of Eric Burin’s Picking the President, maintaining some momentum on Codex, and trying to keep an eye on the news, navigate budget issues on campus, and generally remain sane.

The upshot of this is that I haven’t anything to write about today on the new blog. But fear not, if the constant flow of worrying news in your social media feed isn’t enough to get your restless eyes consuming words, go and check out what my long-time collaborator Richard Rothaus has to say in his review of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America  Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, editors. (North Liberty, Iowa: Ice Cube Press, 2016) posted on the North Dakota Quarterly page. This book definitely has a place on our “Bakken Bookshelf” next to the Bakken Goes Boom and my forthcoming The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) as well as recent Bakken classics like Lisa Peter’s Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil (Minneapolis 2014) (my review here) and After Oil from the Petrocultures Research Group (my thoughts here).

I’d be remiss if I also didn’t point to my other professional commitment, Eastern Mediterranean archaeology, and thank Susan Ackerman and the staff of the American Schools of Oriental Research for making a clear statement on recent moves my the new administration to hinder the movement of people – including numerous ASOR members – from countries where we have experienced hospitality, collegiality, and friendship. She and her staff also voice their support for both the NEH and the NEA which are at risk of defunding.

Please take the time to read the full statement by Prof. Ackerman and the ASOR staff and check out Richard’s review of Fracture. I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled blogging soon!