Teaching Tuesday: First Day of Class Film Strip

I am back on campus for the first time in almost 15 months and looking forward to thinking more about teaching this semester. One of the first challenges will be the 140 smiling faces tonight in the Scale-Up classroom. Readers of this blog know that I’ve been teaching in the Scale-Up room for  few years now (you can read more about it here), and have been moderately successful porting a History 101: Western Civilization class into a collaborative learning environment.

During my year away, the folks coordinating the use of the Scale-Up room asked that faculty using it be a bit more explicit in articulating the philosophy behind the room and its attendant benefits. So I decided that I would do a brief presentation on the history of active learning in history during my first session in the Scale-Up room tonight.

Oh, and I thought it would be cool if I organized it like a film strip mostly because I like the BEEP noise in the recording that would advance the film strip to the next image.

So here’s my opening film strip in 25 slides.

Slide 1: 

In the beginning, there was the seminar.


Slide 2: 

It was invented by historians in German and imported to the U.S. in the late 19th century.


Slide 3:

The typical seminar involved a group of 8 to 15 students arranged around a table (the seminar table).  


Slide 4:

This group of students studied original documents that they called “primary sources” and shared their research with one another in a critical environment.


Slide 5: 

The best seminar rooms provided access to basic reference works, maps, and specialized works of history to help the students understand ofttimes difficult documents.


Slide 6:

The goal of the seminar was collaborative, active learning in the service of history.


Slide 7: 

The seminar arrived at the University of North Dakota in the early 20th century at the hands of renown historian Orin G. “Orangey” Libby. 


Slide 8: 

He had learned history through seminars at the University of Wisconsin under the guidance of Frederick “The Frontier” Jackson Turner.


Slide 9:

At UND, the seminar thrived and produced the first generation of historians of the state of North Dakota. 


Slide 10:

While it was mainly designed to educate graduate students in history, it was quickly adapted to other history classes.


Slide 11:

As the university grew and history attracted more and more students, the seminar became difficult to maintain, because it was such a hands-on learning experience.


Slide 12:

With the rapid growth in university enrollments both at UND and around the country, new methods for teaching students history emerged. 


Slide 13: 

These methods sought to refocus student attention from hands-on learning from “primary source” documents and specialized libraries to building massive factual repositories in their heads.


Slide 14:

The best way to give a large number of students the tools necessary to think about history without giving them access to “primary sources” was to fill their brain with raw material for history: names, dates, places, battles, dynasties, and countries.


Slide 15:

This could be done at an impressive scale and this led to the famous “lecture bowl” style history classrooms filled with bored students. 


Slide 16:

This method created the impression of knowledge – students could recite the names and dates of important people and events – without the substance derived from working together to read primary source documents.


Slide 17:

The professor went from being an experience guide and resource who led students through the difficult work of reading primary sources, to a fact dispensing machine tasked with filling brains with the most important bits of knowledge.


Slide 18:

Needless to say, this system sucked for both the professor who became Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and for students who began the annual tradition of claiming they’re not good at remembering dates. 


Slide 19: 

It also led to the rapid growth of the textbook industry which sought to make it easier for students to learn names and dates while at the same time presented a watered down version of historical analysis. Unfortunately, showing someone how to tie a knot is not the best way to teach someone to do it. 


Slide 20:

Textbooks are expensive and usually make money for big corporations. 


Slide 21:

The Scale-Up room is a modified return to the seminar system.


Slide 22:

Each table will function like a small seminar in which participants will work together to produce historical analysis.


Slide 23:

Instead of the specialized libraries, we will use the internets and the resources available through UND’s library. 


Slide 24:

Instead of buying an expensive textbook, we’ll make our own textbooks.


Slide 25: 

Instead of memorizing a bunch of names and dates, we’ll actually learn how to write history.






Some Thoughts on Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity

I read Andrew Martin’s relatively new book, Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity with great excitement! His book promised to provide “a stout defense of an archaeology based on the ideas of Bruno Latour.” Since I have been particularly interested in Latour’s work lately and, particularly, his positions as an alternative to the turn of the (21st) century fascination with Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens. As readers of my blog know, I’ve been curious about Latour eagerness to look at the way in which the tools we use in our research – as well as the complex network of social relations and the objects of scientific study – collude to produce scientific knowledge. Latour seemed extraordinarily attuned to the interplay between various actors (both human and otherwise) and this seemed ideally suited for both archaeology as a discipline and the archaeology of the discipline.

On a more practical level, I’m reading this book along with a few others for a multi-book review article on recent trends in archaeology. Last winter, I posted on Bjørnar Olsen’s and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s Ruin Memories for an individual review, but, now, this review will be rolled into this larger project.

The first half of Martin’s book is a relatively careful examination of Latour’s important early works – Science in Action (1987) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993) – oddly missing is any discussion of his slightly later work Aramis, or the Love of Technology (1996). For Martin, the key contribution of Latour is his critique of the division between nature and culture. Latour’s careful study of scientific procedures in a Nobel prize winner’s laboratory led him to argue that the division between nature and culture obscured the real work of science by reducing scientific arguments to descriptions of a natural “fact” rather than arguments based on expansive, but ultimately defined observations. Science works through the continual adjustment of definitions serving to define expansive bodies of observations rather than the testing of some pre-conceived hypothesis as suggested by Karl Popper.

If Latour’s science is the work of description, rather than hypothesis testing, then the reality of nature is not subjected to a “thought up” theory, but rather the product of a set of objects arranged according to shared characteristics. This understanding of science removed culture as an organizing principle, and, instead, relied upon empirical characteristics to define relationships. Objects, in other words, can object to groupings that do not produce compatibility. As a result, objects form an active nexus in the relationship between the scientist, other objects, and whatever tools the scientist uses to document, describe, or measure the object. The mutual compatibility of all these objects, persons, tools, spaces, and relationships is necessary for a coherent network of knowledge to exist. For Latour, the hypothesis, then, is description of mutual compatibility between all parts of the experiment which is periodically – and artificially – published in scientific papers.

For Martin (and Latour) this approach is radically different from what social scientists do in the production of knowledge. Instead of patiently gathering observations and arranging groups of similar objects, events, and combinations to create large complex, but compatible datasets, social scientists attempt to reduce natural complexity by explaining objects, events, or relationships through preconceived theories which they associate with culture. By maintaining a divisions between the conceptual and abstract world of culture and the natural world of objects, social sciences not only rendered objects passive, but also departed from the practices fundamental to scientific work. When Latour famously claims that “we have never been modern” he refers directly to the premodern failure to separate the cultural from the natural that persists in modern science. The difference between “modern” science and its premodern predecessor for Latour is simply the vast scale and number of observations possible in modern science, but not in the basic operation. The myth of a modernity made up of passive objects understood only through universal theories applies only in the social sciences which, then, falsely grant their work authority through appeals to the scientific method. So far, this is great stuff. Anyone interested in how and why Latour constructed his symmetrical view of scientific knowledge production should spend a day reading the first 100 pages or so of this book.

In the second 100 pages or so witness the application of these theories to two archaeological data sets: burials in the Wessex culture of Early Bronze Age England and in North American Hopewell Indians. Both of these contexts have certain “controversies” or inconsistencies in the material culture that defy traditional efforts at analysis. For Martin, “controversies” (which is a Latourian term) appear in archaeology when objects resist being reduced to patterns established by existing systems of explanation or, in the case of the social sciences, structures.  

This part of the book was less convincing in large part because, as Martin admitted, there was no room really to develop the observations and objects that he intended to present as case-studies for applying Latour to archaeology. As a result, Martin does very little with the process of archaeology and more with the objects themselves and their archaeological “context.” The main point that he attempts to make is that the “entire context” for archaeological objects must be considered by the Latourian archaeologist: not just typology or sub-groups of artifacts selected according to pre-existing notions of kinship, ethnicity, or social structure. Order comes to these assemblages not through an existing theory but through statistical combinations which produce patterns that suggest social, political, and economic relationships. As he presents this in practice, there is little new here or exciting. Archaeologists are always looking for new ways to understand objects and assemblages and while we often approach sites with preconceived ideas of the processes that create artifact assemblages, I question whether we are as enslaved to “cultural” explanations as Martin supposes. 

What I will admit, however, is that we tend to see objects and relationships as the object of study and very much separate from the tools, people, and organization of archaeological work. Martin’s book replicates this separation by presenting the archaeological material with very little commentary on how it was produced. As a result, objects associated with the archaeological method were not given space “to object” to the arguments and relationships formed by the artifactual assemblage. This is consistent with the arbitrary break between the publication of scientific knowledge and the methods used to produce it, but this arbitrary split does little to break down the division between nature and culture that Latour and Martin regard as so problematic for social scientific knowledge. If the book’s goal was to produce a genuinely Latourian approach to archaeological knowledge production, then Martin needed to unpack both the social and the physical objects in archaeology. Objects in archaeology fit into both ancient (or, in Martin’s terms “original”) context which reflect their production, their distribution, and their use in a primary context, but also through their place in the context of archaeological practice. For objects to “object” to archaeological interpretation they have to intersect with the work of archaeological practice in a meaningful way.  

What is required to produce a Latourian archaeology, then, is not just a published study of an archaeological assemblage (which suggests Latourian practice, but does not really demonstrate it), but a new ethnography of archaeological work. 

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It’s the calm before storm as classes start on Tuesday and students show up on campus this weekend. Fortunately, there’s the final test of the Ashes, Formula 1 is at Spa, NASCAR is at Bristol, and NFL preseason has entered its very brief, interesting phase.

While I’m taking the weekend to gather my thoughts and energy before the semester begins, I’ll pass along some quick hits and varia for your enjoyment.

IMG 3716The Mighty Milo is under the weather today,
but he promises to be back to his vigilant self as soon as possible.

The Real History of Assessment

It’s been a long time since I’ve let myself be annoyed by something in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I take some pride in that because one of the Chronicle’s chief purposes is to keep us all informed where, when, and for what reason the sky is falling.

Yesterday, Prof. Joan Hawthorne, the Director of Assessment and Regional Accreditation at University of North Dakota wrote a short article in defense of assessment with reference with UND and, in particular, our history department. Prof. Hawthorne is far too humble in her abbreviated history of assessment at UND. 

The true story is that the first assessocrats came to the Norther Plains in the late-19th century. They were fresh from their time in England where they had improved the efficiency both of industrial mills as well as of various luddite groups in their effort to undermine industrialization across the country. In the “new world,” this small, but dedicated cadre committed their energies to demonstrating that “doing” is the goal of a university education and offered unique guidance in helping outmatched university administrators achieve this goal.

At UND, the first assessocrats where there in shadows when the university decide to hire a Ph.D. historian after almost a decade of history courses being taught by a theology professor. The first assessocrats huddled with the leaders of the the university – Webster Merrifield and Henry Montgomery – and guided them through major curriculum changes and faculty selection to ensure UND entered the 20th century with proper respect for learning outcomes. 

When Orin G. “Orangey” Libby, the first trained historian appeared on campus, the assessocrats met him at the train. Immediately on his arrival, they urged him to discard the small pine box that he brought with him from the University of Wisconsin. The pine box provided him with a bit more height in the classroom so he could “profess” more effectively. In its place, the assessocrats told Libby about a technique called the seminar that his advisor had learned at Johns Hopkins University on the far away East Coast. Some very early assessocrats in Germany had developed the seminar and then carried this method around the world by them. In the seminar, students did not just passively learn history, but actually engaged primary source documents to write history. Libby, grateful for their advisement, installed the seminar at UND and made it vital part of history education for a century. As the seminar developed at UND, the assessocracy encouraged Libby to offer students opportunities in professional development ranging from work compiling a new archive of material vital to the history of North Dakota and publishing short studies based on this material in a newly created history journal. He would never have done this had the assessocrats not told him to approach student learning in a thoughtful way.

Libby’s successors, of course, would have lost their way had not the assessocrats gently pushed them to adopt the newest teaching techniques. Needless to say, beloved professors like Elwyn Robinson and Robert Wilkins would not have spent the time to create an archive at UND for our students to gain experience with historical documents had not the assessocracy urged them to do more than merely profess their own knowledge to their classes. In fact, historians like Robinson and Wilkins were likely to have expected students to learn history through quiet reading or listening passively to colleagues present their research. Clearly, these methods are untenable and would have resulted in the end of any possible understanding of the past.

Instead, thanks to the assessocrats, historians at UND created classes focusing on the “craft” of history which emphasized the production of history over the rote memorization of names and dates. Faculty reinforced and expanded the skills learned in this class throughout the curriculum. The assessocrats insisted that this culminate in a capstone course which provided undergraduates with a chance to demonstrate their mastery of these skills. Without the guiding hand of the assessocracy, it is not an exaggeration to claim that history as a discipline would have ended with the last historian blandly intoning one final lecture (perhaps on the Battle of Hastings) to an empty classroom.

Prof. Hawthorne modestly overlooked the long tradition of assessocratic guidance and influence at the university level. Without directors of assessment, associate VPs of tabulation, and offices of assessment and evaluation, the modern university would be mired in an endless loop lectures, textbooks, and almost empty classrooms.


We should not be naive. Hawthorne’s oversimplified claims that before assessments professors “professed” stiff-legged behind the podium reading from a textbook, is not just an oversimplification. She has overwritten a long, disciplinary history of teaching and learning and replaced it with an administrative myth. In this myth,  assessment and the crusading administrators who implemented these techniques created a 21st century university that was responsive to student needs and prepared to lead the world in facing new challenges, new opportunities, and, perhaps most importantly, new opportunities for economic gain. This narrative is not only insulting (especially considering the long tradition of fields like history in pioneering “active learning”), but also an obvious ploy to undermine disciplinary practices in favor of centralized administrative control.

More frustratingly, her article attacked the most vulnerable fields at the modern university. She does not use as an example the professional disciplines which starting with law, medicine, and education developed their own accreditation bodies that stipulate assessment practices. These professions and disciplines have sufficient authority to push back against the growing power of the university administration. In contrast, the national and international professional organizations for the disciplines in the humanities have embraced a diversity of practices, methods, and goals, and do not have accreditation standards which can stand up against the university administration. As a result, it is easy to pick on these disciplines despite their role as pioneers in “learning by doing” practices that the assessocracy has only recently sought to generalized across the entire university. 

Recent objections to assessment from these fields is not resistance to learning-centered or student-centered teaching. Most university disciplines have long judged their success or failure in the classroom. In fact, goal of teaching in the modern university has always been to produce practitioners of the discipline. The success of teaching history is easily assessed by evaluating the quality of historical work produced by our students. As professional historians of some standing in our discipline, we are uniquely qualified to determine whether, in Hawthorne’s words, we are producing students who can “do” history. 

I’d contend that most objections to assessment come from the idea that the central administration discovered assessment techniques, according to Hawthorne’s article, sometime in the late-1990s and must now share them with hopelessly out of touch (and possibly lazy) faculty who had never considered “learning outcomes” as worth exploring. 

I recognize, of course, that the university of the late-20th and early-21st century is a very different, more diverse, and more complex place than it was a century or so earlier. The competition for faculty time and energy is higher, the range of disciplines, methods, and best practices is greater, and the student body more diverse. In fact, I’d accept the need for the dedicated administrators and staff who do their part to lift the burden of bureaucratic responsibility from faculty, navigate the Byzantine policies of federal and state oversight, ensure the physical (and digital) infrastructure functions optimally, and maintain the outward face of the university through marketing, design, and accessibility. 

At the same time, the rise of this administration in its glorious complexity has clearly contributed to a sense of alienation among both students and faculty, and I suspect that this, more than anything, has led to a loss of purpose, a growing skepticism toward administrative initiatives, and perhaps even a certain resigned complacency. Moreover, I’d suggest that the rise of the administrative assessocracy has only compounded this alienation. Hawthorne’s willingness to overwrite the long history of discipline-specific teaching practices is typical, and will not help encourage faculty accountability in the classroom. Hinting that without assessment faculty would revert to professing on a pine box or teaching from a textbook does not suggest that the assessocracy respects disciplinary practice or even understands the critique. It creates a barrier between the assessocracy, the administration, and faculty that will not be easily breached. Centralizing assessment will continue to generate faculty resistance and rhetorically weak efforts to dismiss it will lead to greater alienation.

On this blog, I have argued numerous times that students are capable of genuine resistance in the classroom. Failure to follow directions, read the syllabus, complete assignments to spec or on time, or be engaged in the classroom is not a student problem, but a teacher problem. As teachers we have to first respect these forms of resistance before we can address them. Resistance to assessment is not a faculty problem that can be solved by rewriting history or offering patronizing views of faculty motives. It’s a structural problem with the modern university, and it deserve to be taken far more seriously that Prof. Hawthorne did in yesterday’s Chronicle.

A Literary Journal in the Digital Age

This afternoon we have our first North Dakota Quarterly meeting of the year. NDQ is a small, proud, and once influential literary journal published at the University of North Dakota. For over a century, the Quarterly has appeared four times (or somewhat less) per year filled with poetry, fiction, and commentary. The last few years, however, have not been particularly kind to NDQ. It has lost subscribers, lost its longtime editor, and somehow missed out on the digital era. As a result, support from the University of North Dakota, which remains vital for its survival, has wavered, and a new editorial board of which I’m a part has a mandate to save the journal.

Cropped ndq image string vector Color

My contribution to the “Save NDQ” project focuses on helping the journal find its way in the digital world. In fact, I’m giving a little presentation on a few possible digital initiatives. As per my usual practice, I’m going to use my blog to get my thoughts together.

1. Digital Legacy. One of the first things that NDQ must address is its legacy. NDQ has over 400 issues and thousands of pages of content and almost none of this is available online (other than the first 20 or so issues digitized as part of the Google Books project) even now that our issues are born digital.

As part of bringing NDQ’s legacy to the digital era, we are going to start a series of thematic reprints of public domain content and make them available on both paper and in digital forms (in collaboration The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota!). In other words, we’re going to use digital media to organize and celebrate the legacy of NDQ in new ways.

For issues that remain under copyright, we’re in a unique bind. Because NDQ published for year without author contracts, and the most recent author contracts limited the republication of individual submissions to NDQ, we are going to have problems producing thematic reprints for volumes still under copyright. My gut feeling is that for articles published before 1950, we might be safe doing some thematic reprints, but for more recent content, we probably need to simply release digital copies of the entire volumes.

We will also contact Jstor to see if they are interested in distributing NDQ, but we might also look to other online depositories to ensure that digital NDQ circulates as widely as possible.

2. Beyond Paper. As readers of this blog know, I’m always willing to experiment with the newest in new media (well, not the newest, but once it becomes a bit tired, I’m all in!). I even joined Ello. Part of what we need to do with NDQ is to bolster its presence online through the new media. We will unveil a new website in the coming weeks, and, hopefully, this allows us to engage with timely matters in a more efficient way. 

We’re also in the exploration stages of a series of Podcasts, an Instagram account, and even some low-key (gasp) e-marketing (like a regular email newsletter or even a subscription drive?).

At times, NDQ feels like it exists in a sepia-toned bubble, but, in fact, the Quarterly serves as a filter. We get hundreds of submissions for each volume, and we publish only the most interesting and exciting each quarter. This filtering function is all the more important in the 21st century, where the abundance of new and traditional media choices for the educated reader is almost overwhelming. And we think that our editors, readers, and supporters could collaborate in filtering the the wild world of the web. So, I’d like to introduce a quarterly NDQ list of the best things to read both on the web and on paper. I know there is a good bit of competition in this field, but I also know that our contributors, readers, friends, and colleagues are a formidable filter. I think a quarterly email with our favorite reads could become a complement to the print version of the Quarterly. We also think that this is a great way to build bridges between the various quality publications both online and in print that our editors, contributors, and subscribers enjoy.

Podcasts offer another way to expand the audience for NDQ. Reading is great, but the amount of hours in a day never allow for as much time for thought-provoking engagement with quality media as anyone would like. I am always surprised by the number of folks I know who listen regularly to podcasts. If journals like NDQ, were the quality popular media of their day, then perhaps podcasts fill that gap now?

Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat (!?). I mean, seriously? Do these media have potential? Poems on Snapchat? Cover art on Instagram? I don’t even know what we could do with Vine, but these light-weight media options exist and are popular and have a tremendous reach. They’re ripe for experiment.

3. Transmedia. As much as I can imagine NDQ using new media to extend its reach, I can also imagine us engaging new media in different, critical ways. For example, I’d love to see NDQ offer a critical take on music. Fortunately, YouTube, Vimeo, and streaming services like Spotify make it easy to integrate music and text online.

My colleague Sharon Carson, also on the editorial board at NDQ, is committed to renewing the genre of book review, I wonder if complementing that should be an effort to revitalize the genre of music review?

Even the most rudimentary blog platform now allows for us to integrate video and and photography and take the genre of review from a cross media exercise to a transmedia encounter where art, music, video, and text share the same space and blur the line between viewer, listener, and reader. 

4. Paper. All this is not to marginalize the tradition of paper publication at NDQ. In fact, by exploring digital media while remaining committed to paper, we recognize the unique character of paper, printing, layout, fonts, and all the other craft elements of traditional publication that our growing addiction to web reading and digital publication has gradually eroded. By crossing media boundaries, we are compelled to consider more carefully what makes print unique and to celebrate it.

Teaching Tuesday: Scale-Up Syllabus Tweaks

I’ve had about a year to think about how to tweak the syllabus for my Western Civilization I class that I teach in the Scale-Up class room (for more on my adventures in teaching history in a Scale-Up room, go here). The Scale-Up classroom is organized around 20, round, 9-person tables with three laptops each and a bunch of options for collaborative work. Over the last three years, I’ve been working with about 130 students a year in the room to write our own Western Civilization I textbook. The class has been high in student engagement, but not always satisfying on educational outcomes.

So, this semester, I decided to make another round of tweaks on the syllabus designed to bring the class closer to some of the learning outcomes that I desire without eroding the impressive level of student engage that I have enjoyed.

My learning outcomes include the ability to use specific evidence and primary sources to support arguments, to identify arguments, evidence, and themes in a text, and to be able to grasp multiple narratives that make up our idea of Western Civilization. The following reflection on my syllabus tweaks reflect the intersection of practical classroom concerns with these larger learning goals.

1. Balancing Rewards for Individual and Group Work. It goes without saying that students hate group work. Actually, they don’t mind working in a group; what they don’t like is getting graded on group work. What seems to bother the students in the scale-up class the most is not how well they do on the work, but whether some people get the same credit for doing less work. (Insert political commentary here.) 

When I last taught this class in the spring of 2014, I skewed the points available heavily to group work figuring if I go in for a penny, I’d go in for a pound (or something). The point distribution clearly motivated most students to take their collaborative work seriously, but a visible minority seemed satisfied to allow the better and more engaged students to carry the load. While this visible minority was still more engaged than students in a big lecture type class or even a smaller traditional classroom, they seemed particularly marginal in the acquisition of key skills in the class. And I found myself at a loss for a method to determine what these students learned.

This semester, I’m going to balance individual graded work and group work at 50%/50%. Students will grasp that a strong performance as a group will balance a lackluster performance as an individual and vice versa. This recognition seems to motivate students to work together (many hands making the load lighter) while still taking individual work seriously.

2. Being Critical Readers. One of the issues that I’ve encountered in the class is that students hate textbooks, but don’t read them. So asking them WHY they hate textbooks is a difficult task. They claim that they’re boring, but can’t articulate why they’re boring, because they don’t read them. So when they write their own textbook chapter, students fall into the same trap as most textbook authors. They produce “one damn fact after another” and the resulting work, while well researched and more-or-less carefully organized, is boring. 

This semester, I’m going to run a 3-week mini-seminar on reading textbooks in my Western Civilization class. I assign an assortment of 7 or 8 textbooks to the class so that each table of 9, has as wide a range of different textbook as is possible. This fall, I’m going to explicitly ask the students to evaluate their textbooks along three lines:

a. What arguments do the various sections of the textbook make? If they are not obvious arguments, what themes do they emphasize?

b. What sources do they use to support these themes? What primary sources do they provide and how do these fit with the arguments or themes in the texts?

c. What specific evidence – names, dates, places, et c. – do they use to make their arguments or articulate their themes? How do they make these specific bits of evidence familiar?

These basic questions will be asked of the textbook chapters covering the Greek, Roman, and Medieval worlds. At various times, I’ll ask the students to compare the textbooks around their tables, and at other times, I’ll ask the class to reorganize themselves into groups according to their textbooks for the class.

Each section will result in each student preparing a short (ca. 700-1000 word) paper on their textbook section, and ground each student more firmly in both critical reading of textbooks as well as preparing them to create textbook chapters that address the weaknesses and emulate the strengths of existing works.

3. History as History. One of the main weaknesses of my class is that I don’t spend much time worrying about “the historical method.” In part, this reflects my deep ambivalence regarding the historical method (and my doubts whether it really exists) as well as a skepticism whether it is possible to prepare introductory level students to engage in disciplinary science. In other words, even if I accepted that history had a clearly articulated method, I’m not sure it is very honest to pretend that 100 level history students are learning any part of it. At best, my students learn a few ways to produce and critique strong arguments and some factoids about the past. If they somehow leave the class imagining that this is history, then I probably have done more harm than good.

That being said, students should recognize that various historical methods, themes, and points of emphasis reflect different priorities in how we understand the past. In general, these different priorities reflect different views on historical causality (the most famous example is the contrast between “great men” and “social processes” as agents of change) as well as different attitudes about the present. I’m going to try to bring a bit more historical sensitivity to the class by emphasizing the different between these ways of thinking about the past.

I’m going to meld this with the critical textbook reading “seminar” and encouraging the students to recognize the differences in emphasis and argument among various texts as efforts to promote the priority of various historical forces from the individual to institutions, social and economic structures, and the slow change of cultural expectations. Hopefully, this introduction to how historians think about the past will not detract from the more basic (and, frankly, transferable) skills associated with making coherent and compelling arguments.


Slow Archaeology: Another Draft

My slow archaeology idea is continuously evolving. Here is the most recent iteration. It was prepared for the edited volume produced from the Mobilizing the Past conference which was held last spring. 

In many ways, this paper complements the short article that I prepared for North Dakota Quarterly last winter. While in the NDQ article, I tried to keep a conversational tone, in this article, I invested a bit more in the intellectual framework for a slow archaeology. 

As per usual, I’d be grateful for any comments!

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It is supposed to be close to one thousand degrees here in North Dakotaland today, so I got up early to blog while the weather is still tolerable. I think this will finally melt that little patch of snow by the side of the house and thaw the last of the garden in time for the first frost of fall.

So while we’re baking in our boots, I offer a small gaggle of quick hits and varia for you to enjoy.

But first, a photo of the North Dakota Man Camp Project’s August 2015 field team:

North Dakota Man Camp Project August 2015

And now, some quick hits and varia:

IMG 3699Can’t let my paws touch the floor!

Add Some Digital to your Greek and Roman Archaeology Class!

With the word “syllabus” trending among my friends, I thought I might advertise an offering from my press. Last winter, we published a slim volume called Visions of Substance: 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology edited by myself and Brandon Olson. 

The volume is a nice little critical reader on the recent state of 3D imaging in Mediterranean archaeology. Thinking back to my Greek and Roman archaeology courses, I am now struck by how little we discussed technology or even technique in those courses. We mostly considered the architecture present important sites, basic typologies and chronologies, and some big picture themes in the history of the discipline. Today, of course, Greek and Roman archaeology classes are very different. Not only do we expect our students to know something about a range of methods (from open area excavations to intensive pedestrian survey) and methodologies (New Archaeology, Behavioral Archaeology, post-processual archaeology, and increasingly the debate over agency in archaeological practice), but also some familiarity with the use of technology (ranging from carbon-14 dating to GIS, databases, and photogrammetry) and incorporating some basic discussion of post-ancient archaeology. Needless to say, John Bintliff’s recently published survey of Greek archaeology (blogged about here and here) is a very different book than, say, William Biers’ crusty olde (er, venerable) The Archaeology of Greece or John Pedley’s Greek Art and Archaeology.

The upside of this is that our average field school student at the Western Argolid Regional Project knows a good bit more about archaeology as a discipline than I did as a junior or senior Latin major (or even as an M.A. student with a growing interest in the material culture!). At the same time, Greek and Roman archaeology courses have become more and more difficult to teach as no one textbook or survey introduces students to full scope of Mediterranean archaeology. So supplemental readings are a must.

Visions of Substance is a perfect supplemental reading for a Greek or Roman archaeology class. It is an up-to-date treatment of 3D imaging practices in “old world” archaeology with both practical examples of how the introduction of low cost 3D imaging technology is changing archaeological practice in the field and essays dedicated to the larger theoretical implications of these practices. The articles are written by scholars who are active in the field and leaders in the various aspects of digital archaeology and publishing.  Finally, and most importantly, it’s free and available for download here or here. Or, if you really like the smell of newly printed books, you can get a paper copy here.

Visions of Substance CoverALL loosefront

There are several additional readings available online here.

Here’s the table of contents:

1. Introduction
Brandon R. Olson 1

2. 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology: What are we doing, anyway?
James Newhard 9

3. A Discussion of the Analytical Benefits of
Image Based Modeling in Archaeology
Brandon R. Olson and Ryan A. Placchetti 17

4. The Work of Archaeology in the Age of Digital Surrogacy
Adam Rabinowitz 27

5. Three- and Four-Dimensional Archaeological Publication
Andrew Reinhard 43


6. Closing Gaps with Low-Cost 3D
Sebastian Heath 53

7. 3D Models as Analytical Tools
Ethan Gruber 63

8. Three Dimensional Field Recording in Archaeology: An Example from Gabii
Rachel Opitz 73

9. Photogrammetry on the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project
Eric Poehler 87

10. 3D Reconstruction of the Renaissance Bastion at the Langenbrücker Gate in Lemgo (Germany)
Guido Nockemann 101

11. Bringing the Past into the Present: Digital Archaeology Meets Mechanical Engineering
Brandon R. Olson, Jody M. Gordon, Curtis Runnels, Steve Chomyszak 107

About the Authors 113

The Tourist Guide to the Bakken: A Preface

One of my favorite things to do when a book manuscript is almost done is to prepare the preface and acknowledgements. 

Since I put the final touches on the first completed (and ready to send to the publisher) draft of the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch this week, I indulged myself in writing a short preface. I’m not sure how much of this preface will actually appear in the published version (except for the acknowledgements with will almost certainly be expanded), but it was fun to site down and try to write out a <1000 word summary of the project.

With any luck, the Guide will head off on its maiden voyage to a publisher by the end of this week, scrapping in just a week before classes start! I’ll do all I can to make a complete copy of the guide available in an open access form, but this will be subject to some negotiation with the publisher.

In the meantime, enjoy!


This book is meant to be several things at once. First, it is a genuine guide to the sights and sites of the Bakken oil patch. It took its inspiration from European travel guides like the Blue Guide and Baedecker’s as well as myriad locally-authored guides designed to give visitors an opportunity to explore a city’s or regions’ cultural life. Following in the tradition of these guides, this volume privileges an archaeological reading of the Bakken landscape and foregrounds the material culture and the industrial picturesque. The book also reflects close to four years of visits to the Bakken and presents a landscape informed by conversations with scholars, journalists, long-time residents, temporary workers, and new North Dakotans. So while the book is primarily archaeological, it cannot avoid the people who make the Bakken oil boom such an intriguing and dynamic time in both the history of North Dakota and the the United States.

Even a superficial reading of this guide should demonstrate our deep commitment to recognizing the historical significance of the Bakken Boom, its monuments, and its people. We intentionally selected the genre of the tourist guide as a way to emphasize the dynamism of a the Bakken oil boom against the backdrop of tourism, which since the start of the 20th century represents a rather middle-class form of engagement. Tourism and recreational travel offered a controlled respite from the stability of suburban life and repackaged the adventure of travel and tourism as a way to validate the privilege of the middle class condition. Today, however, the mobility and instability that is visible in the Bakken has emerged not as a respite from the routine life of the settled middle class suburb, but a the daily condition of a significant segment of the middle class. This segment consists of people who work “just-in-time,” contribute to extractive industries, or are otherwise buffeted by the eddying flow of global capital. This locates the genre of the tourist guide in a challenging place. On the one hand, the tourist guide locates both the worker in the Bakken oil patch and the traveler in the same space within a dynamic landscape. In this way, it is consistent with the classic view of tourism as a method for creating a cohesive modern world understandable to the tourist, if not entirely familiar.

On the other hand, the use of the tourist guide as a way to present the the dynamic world of the Bakken has obvious, if superficial, limits. The tourist guide freezes the Bakken in time. A book cannot represent thoroughly the dynamic character of the changing Bakken landscape. Because of this shortcoming, we have taken the liberty of recording as contemporary various sites observed over multiple trips to the Bakken. This is consistent with our interest in using the tourist guide as a way to document the landscape and history of the 21st century Bakken oil boom. The composite landscape presented in this guide includes ephemera that are unlikely to persist longer than the decade or will almost certainly be hidden as part of a efforts to return the region to a romanticized vision of a pre-boom state or as different economic priorities reshape the landscape. Our tourist guide draws attention to workforce housing sites, fragile roadside memorials, oil wells destined to be drained and capped, and bustling businesses poised to follow the crowds of workers to the next boom site.

There are several themes that run through this tourist guide. We sought to describe movement of people and resources throughout the oil patch by highlighting infrastructure ranging from truck stops to pipeline hubs. We set movement in the Bakken against sites of both very recent and more distant historical significance to the industrial past of region with particular attention to the history of extractive industries. Through The Guide, we have directed visitors to the Bakken to the sites of recent environmental catastrophes and point out a few of the prominent accident sites that communities and loved ones have commemorated through the patch. Finally, we have attempted to leaven the guide with some of the individuals we have met throughout our research in the oil patch. We have, as much as possible, avoided direct criticism of the oil industry, communities, or, in most cases, the mass media, but at times a thorough consideration of the Bakken as a living landscape makes this unavoidable.

This preface and the final chapter of the guide provide a framework for reading the guide as a piece of scholarship. We hope that the guide stands alone as a piece of engaging and useful writing without the academic apparatus.

The guide would not be possible without the assistance of a vast number of individuals. Richard Rothaus accompanied us on most of our trips to the Bakken, encouraged our work, read drafts of the guide, and provided a running and mostly welcomed commentary on the Bakken. Aaron Barth, Kostis Kourelis, Bob Caulkins, Carenlee Barkdull, John Holmgren, Kyle Cassidy, and Ryan Stander are members of the North Dakota Man Camp Project and knowingly or not supported the development of this guide. Journalists covering the Bakken offered helpful insights throughout our work with special thanks going to Amy Dalrymple and Emily Guerin, and photographers Andy Cullen and Chad Ziemendorf. Finally, this guide would not have been possible without the willingness of the residents of the Bakken, various municipal officials, employees of Bakken business, and other busy people who decided to take a few minutes (and sometimes more) to talk with us about their experiences, their landscapes, and their history. Without their help this guide would not be possible. Any shortcomings of the guide are our responsibilities alone.