The Bakken and the Body

Our panel last week at the Northern Great Plains History Conference was really exciting. The four papers presented in our panel, titled “Boom Goes the Bakken,” each explored a different aspect of ongoing research in the history of the state and western North Dakota. The papers by Nikki Burg Burin, Richard Rothaus, and Bret Weber opened up some new lines of thinking for me and will contribute to a new project that’s been gnawing at the back of my head for several months now. Go here for the panel’s line up and here for a draft of my paper.

Nikki’s and Richard’s paper, in particular, got me thinking about the body in the Bakken. Nikki’s paper continued her important work on human trafficking in North Dakota and how women’s bodies came under different legal definitions over the course of North Dakota legal history. The most significant changes in these laws recognized trafficked individuals as victims even if they engaged in activities such as sex work prohibited by existing statutes. While Berg Burin stressed that there is still significant work to do to protect women who turned to sex work out of economic desperation, immigration status, or as a result of childhood or adult trauma, it was also clear that attitudes toward the female body in North Dakota had undergone significant change over the 100 year history of the state. Moreover, recent changes in the law hint at more subtle understanding in agency when it comes to exploited women that recognized the limits of bodily control even in cases when both the victims and the crime have a profoundly physical and bodily aspect.

Rothaus’s paper likewise focuses on the individual and the body in his discussion of a series of grizzly murders in Williams and McKenzie counties in the early 20th century. The crimes were all committed by “outsiders” who came to the area as itinerate laborers on local farms during the the rapid growth of settlement across the western part of the state. In two of his case studies, the murderers themselves were murdered by mobs of men who pulled them from their jail cells when their convictions seemed less than assured and took justice into their own hands (in the other case the murderer committed suicide). Like in Nikki’s paper, the bodies, quite literally, became the nexus for the definition of community as alienated outsiders both committed and received physical violence that confirmed their outsider status.

Bret Weber’s paper was a bit more sweeping and engaged Guy Standing’s idea of the “precariat” to understand the Bakken in the broader context of neoliberal employment trends around the world. At the same time, his understanding of the the Bakken precariat is grounded in individual stories drawn from his hours of interviews. While he did not articulate the experience of being precarious in strict bodily terms, his commitment to the individual ensured that the risks, opportunities, and experiences of the Bakken were not generalized into a state of anonymity.

Finally, my paper, completely missed the boat in an explicit way (I felt like I had been invited to a costume party but showed up in khakis and an Oxford shirt!), but I think that my emphasis on the experience of modernity through tourism and movement in the Bakken demonstrated more than a passing interest in the impact of this space on bodies. 

My point with this overview of recent work in Bakken research is that we have become increasingly drawn to the individual as the locus for the experience of the Bakken oil boom. In fact, the panel last week got me thinking about the character of Bakken bodies exposed to the pressures, vagaries, dangers, and sensations of global capital in a distinct (but not unique) way.

I have this fantasy project where I explore the history of the Bakken boom using the kind of deep mapping techniques that guys like William Least Heat-Moon used for his book PrairyErth. The project would start with the large-scale historical, economic, and cultural impact of global petroculture and end with the analysis of a singe (or a small group) of individual bodies in the Bakken with intermediate steps considering the intersection of petroculture with national politics, the economy and culture of the state, and the Bakken landscape. The papers on Thursday was the first time that I became attuned to the idea of Bakken bodies in a way that made it appear as the natural conclusion for my proposed project.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

I have too many books to read and too few ideas to write. So I think I’m going to hunker down and read some over the next few days and then sort out my writing goals on Monday. It’s not that I don’t have work and writing to do — I have more unfinished projects than a guy with a lot of unfinished projects — but I don’t have that precious commodity of excitement and motivation to tuck into one of the projects and see it through to end. 

Maybe reading a good book will get me going again (and it won’t leave me worse for wear!).

In the meantime, here’s a little list of quick hits and varia:

IMG 1186

Math Labs and Jotted Scribblings

The ground floor of O’Kelly Hall on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota is getting a well deserved upgrade. For those unfamiliar with this building, it was originally built as the medical sciences building as part of the medical school on campus (and to this day the west entrance to the building is inscribed with the words “Science Building”). It’s one of the Wells and Denbrook buildings on campus (for a nice survey of Wells and Denbrook’s contribution to North Dakota architecture, check this out) and shares the ambivalent (and perhaps even ironic) modernity of contemporary College Gothic design. The western part of the building dates to 1947 and the eastern part to a half-decade later.

The second floor of the building is where the department of history currently lives, and the ground floor  houses, among other things, the university’s relatively new Scale-Up classroom and the brand new “Meth” (actually Math) Lab. The space around these rooms is still being tidied up after some much-needed upgrades the building. Amid the almost-finished student study spaces and standing less than 20 feet from the Math Lab door is an unfinished cement pillar scrawled with measurements and arithmetic performed by workers remodeling the building. When the refit is completed the math on the cement pillar will be covered, but, for now, it provides a little practical motivation for students trudging toward the math lab each day.

IMG 1207

IMG 1201

IMG 1203

IMG 1204

IMG 1206

This is probably some kind of metaphor for higher education these days. Or maybe neoliberalism. Or something. It might be ironic.

Memories of CAARI at 40

The Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute is 40 years old next year. As part of our efforts to recognize its important place in the archaeology of Cyprus, the board of trustees has invited long-time (and relatively more recent) friends of CAARI to contribute reminiscences to their webpage over the next few months.

IMG 1196

I wrote up some of my memories of my first trip to CAARI close to 15 years ago and tried to articulate what the collegiality of the place, the leadership and generosity of its directors, and how hot it was the first night I spent there.

As a relative newcomer to Cyprus and to CAARI, I can’t conjure memories of the early days or evoke images of half-forgotten figures, places, and events. My arrival at CAARI with my friends and collaborators, Scott Moore and David Pettegrew, was in May of 2003. I had just completed and defended my dissertation but had not yet received my degree, found a academic (or even non-academic!) job, or even decided what to do next. We landed in Larnaka with the goal of prospecting some coastal sites near Pyla village for a possible new project, as well as checking out the antiquities of the island which I had never seen.

I had just spent a couple years at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and was helping wrap up a survey project in the Corinthia and on the island of Kythera. I had become familiar with what I understood to be a kind of stuffy, formal archaeology characterized by anxious and awkward gatherings at the American School and what I perceived (as a student) to be a minefield of professional rivalries and secret knowledge. Whether this was literally true or not, coming to Cyprus felt like a new start.

Our first night on Cyprus was in the hostel at CAARI. It was hot despite being May and the hostel was empty. There was a pesky mosquito buzzing in my ear all night and no matter how I moved or shifted, I could not get cooler or more comfortable. I can honestly say that this first night in the hostel was the last uncomfortable moment that I had at CAARI. Our meeting the next day with then director Tom Davis was collegial and supportive and entirely without pretension. The friendly and relaxed library was full of hidden gems ranging from unpublished dissertation manuscripts to obscure Cypriot periodicals. The strange echoes of footfalls in the atrium traced my route between the library and the room that housed the photocopier for a long day of research. They continue to draw me back to CAARI, although never as often as I’d like.

Over my almost 15 years of work on the island CAARI has been an invaluable resource as I’ve explored the archaeology of Cyprus. Directors Tom Davis and Andrew McCarthy have both been professional models for my own academic and intellectual development and steered me and my colleagues through some tricky political situations with our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria. Vathoulla Moustoukki has always made our visits to CAARI efficient and full of happiness. The annual CAARI workshop revealed the range of archaeological work and, more importantly, revealed the spirit of sharing on the island extended well beyond the CAARI community. The well-lubricated socializing at the CAARI reception after the workshop was for many years the end of season party that every project hoped to have, and connected me to colleagues and collaborators who continue to support my career.

The last few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a member of the CAARI board, and it has reminded me that the comfortable and welcoming confines of CAARI represents the tireless energies of both the staff and current and past trustees. And while I haven’t managed to visit CAARI as much as I’d like over the last few years, the regular reports keep me informed of its ongoing transformation and persistent commitment to everyone who cares about the archaeology of Cyprus.


What Counts in Academia

As readers of my blog know, I’ve had a recent interest in the concept of craft and the slow movement. Part of that interests appears as a critique of academia. While I probably don’t buy the entire “slow academia” philosophy (at least as it has been articulated in some recent works), I have begun to see many of the problems in modern academic life and culture as problems in professionalization. Last week, I participated a bit in a conversation on Facebook spurred by a post from a very well regarded colleague that centered, in part, on what counts in one’s academic career. The specifics of the post are less important, than thinking about the language of “counting” in academia and its relationship the the larger professionalization project in American academic life. 

First, a requisite “checking of privilege”: I recognize that I can openly discuss what counts in academia because I am a white, male, tenured, professor in the humanities. I have a privileged position from which to judge a professional system that despite my own professional mediocrity, has benefited my own place within academia. I recognize that my critiques will ring hollow especially when directed at individuals for whom the the last 70 years of professionalization has benefited directly. At the same time, my right to critique the system is profoundly compromised because whatever its flaws, I am both within the system and as a white, middle aged, affluent, “classically educated” male, I am one of the architects of the current system. There is nothing to say that my criticism of the system will do anything more than change the finish line or adjust the boundary markers without changing the fundamental assumptions that allow the system to persist. As a result, I’m in a Catch-22. My position is sufficiently compromised that my critiques are not to be trusted, but at the same time, I’m in a position to produce what I perceive to be meaningful changes to the system. I’m going to try to articulate some things in this post that will invariably offend people. 

I have to admit to being a bit depressed by the discussion of what counted. I get, of course, that academic culture is increasingly dominated by an assessocracy whose primary goal is to produce comparable measures of performance across campus. In many ways, this is a noble goal and in keeping with the late-19th century trend toward professionalization. We can thank this process for making academic positions part of the middle class, for example, by recognizing that the university faculty who were preparing their students for professional careers where themselves professionals. Professionalization also contributed to academic protections around research, academic freedom, and the development of tenure, and these shaped the contours of academic publishing ranging from footnotes to plagiarism rules, academic societies and conferences, peer review standards, and even the prominence of the mighty monograph. These professional standards undermined the “old boys club” and opened the university to students and faculty on the basis of academic accomplishment rather than patronage or wealth. This, in turn, held forth the prospect of transforming faculty ranks by making academia more welcoming to women, immigrant groups, and minorities. Within the university, professionalization refined university curricula to keep it abreast of changing professional expectations, developed accreditation standards, and attempted to level the campus playing field between traditional humanities departments and new professional and vocational disciplines. In short, the modern university is the product of professionalization of academia.

Counting was a key element in the process of professionalization. In my discipline, history, one of the earliest conversations held among members of our newly christened professional organization, the American Historical Association, was whether to include avocational historians. The issue revolved around whether their work counted as professional history (despite the towering figure of George Bancroft and his New England compatriots whose vision continues to shape our views of the American past even today). Professional standards like citation and formal attribution practices seem readymade for counting and a created a basis to judge the significance of a work within the field and the skill of the scholar by a standard at least theoretically independent of their identity. At the same time, this approach formed a foundation for impact factors and other methods of citation counting used (and derided) today.

The industrial model of the university that sought to recognize both disciplinary authority in their given fields while also streamlining and standardizing university education for a generation of students coming of age in the professional and industrial era reinforced professionalizing trends in academic culture by promoting a model that sought to use professional standards as way to find new institutional efficiencies. It is hardly a surprise today that university administrators seeking to streamline the industrial education machine look to ways to compare departments from a wide range of disciplines across campus. Counting is fundamental to these efforts and whatever reductionist tendencies we see in these approaches to understanding the (in)efficiencies in university structure, we can also understand the historical roots of these models.

The question of what counts is almost always framed by what counts for tenure or promotion, and these metrics, at their best, reinforce professional standards in a discipline, work to mitigate personal (or disciplinary) biases at the university, and help scholars focus their energies as much toward institutional as individual goals. At their worst, however, we find ourselves pinched between overly rigid (or overly vague) guidelines, our own professional aspirations, and the changing professional expectations of our disciplines. 

The examples of these pressures are legion. My colleague Eric Kansa has regularly inveighed against the pressures of academic culture that work against the systematic and consistent publication of useful archaeological data. Publishing data just doesn’t fit into the our standard models of evaluation (yet) and so often doesn’t count. The respondents on the Facebook thread bemoaned that even high impact publications for a non-academic audience do not regularly count toward tenure and promotion. The dull and dirty work of service to professional organizations often falls to the edge of how we’re evaluated for institutional service and is unevenly valued across our disciplines. Other forms of outreach, like blogging, social media rabble rousing, and even mentoring peers, directing an archaeological project, or running for public office, require commitments of time and energy, but do not fit within established or easily quantifiable standards of professional accomplishments.

In my own experience, this very blog has never “counted” toward my tenure or promotion, my work with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota does not fit in a category on my contract or evaluation form, and my off campus service is “valued,” but never really counted. The irony is, of course, that my blog is a vital part of my academic reputation and it almost always features prominently in any professional introduction to my work. My publications at The Digital Press are some of my best work as a scholar and on level with my years directing my own archaeological project, cited regularly, and meaningful contributions, but they aren’t easily categorized or counted. 

The reasons for this are clear, of course. The counting culture has given rise to a gaggle of disreputable, open access, publishing ventures that prey upon faculty needs to boost various impact scores, produce publications quickly, and do work that’s counted. Creating a press to publish marginal work is fun in a “punk rock” or DIY kind of way, but it falls to the troubled margins of good academic practice. At the same time, most academics recognize that the pressures to publish in countable ways has even tarnished the gold monograph standard by flooding the market with works of questionable significance and value. Counting culture has winnowed the pool of scholars interested in collaborating (at least in the humanities) when solo publication carry more value than collaborative ventures, pre-tenure scholars willing to contribute their insights to professional organizations, and, some would argue, the instinct to pursue innovative career trajectories both in graduate school and in early career. At my most cynical moments, I wonder whether counting culture on campus has undone a bit of what tenure offers to senior scholars, the freedom to innovate, take risks, and explore new approaches to knowledge making. With merit raises tied to performance based formulae, doing work that might not count has direct financial consequences and, as a result, many of the most innovative scholarly moves are coming from individuals who are financially well-off, outside academia, or who just don’t care. This is hardly a diverse cross section of academia and seems to subvert both the intellectual freedom of tenure and ostensible goal of democratized professionalism. Moreover (and I’ll admit this is tinged with as much paranoia as jealousy), I wonder whether our scramble to do what counts, particularly in an era of increased competition and economic austerity, has intensified the value of informal professional networks that provide connections for publication, research, presentation, grants, and other perks that allow high performing academics to skirt both the risk of DIY and the stench of more marginal publication and professional practices.  

What is lost in all this is that most of us entered academia not to do things that count, but to do work that matters. As I read more and more on academic culture, I wonder whether the larger professionalization project hasn’t failed in some profound ways. The idea of counting to produce a level playing field in academia has, instead, created a culture where we reserve innovation to finding ways to put the round pegs of our varied professional lives into the square holes of institutional expectations, diversify our portfolios in the name of impact factors and risk aversion, and still lean heavily on non-professional relationships, the “old boys club,” or other shadow networks to advance our professional goals. I hope we still do privilege in our race to be counted things that matter.

Final Draft: The Bakken Gaze

Last week, I posted a serialized (actually in process) version of my paper, “The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of an Industrial Landscape,” for the Northern Great Plains History Conference. On Friday, I tightened it up some and cut some words (although it’s probably still too long). 

The paper explains my interest in using tourism as lens to understand the Bakken oil patch and is written to support the release of a book that Bret Weber and I co-authored titled, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape and published by NDSU Press this month (!). You can preorder the book now.

Or, better still, you can read, download, or comment on the paper via the plug in here. Or you can join us at the Northern Great Plains History conference on Thursday from 2-4 at the Ramada Inn in beautiful Grand Forks, North Dakota!


Friday Varia and Quick Hits

The rainy weekend has only added vibrancy to the fall colors. The beet trucks are on the roads. The mornings are cool, slightly damp, and dark. It’s fall in the Northern Plains.

This week will be a bit hectic with meetings, some grading, a conference, and a couple of slightly neglected deadlines, but I have time this weekend to get some reading done and watch some college football and maybe even get in a run or two. We’ll see.

In the meantime, here are some quick hits and varia:

IMG 1175

The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape (Part 3)

Here’s the final installment of my paper for the Northern Great Plains History Conference next week here in Grand Forks. 

As I wrote about on Monday, I had hoped to make this paper paper more accessible and more breezy and personable, but by about word 1500, it had turned into the typical academic trudge. (I did manage to avoid using the word Foucauldian until 1600 words in!). Here are links to part 1 and part 2

That being said, I think it is probably the best thing I’ve managed to articulate on book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (2017). You can preorder the book now.  

I’ll post a more complete and ideally more polished version of the paper in a few days!

“The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape” (part 3)

To return to the Bakken. It is simple – and superficial – enough to note that the Bakken and tourism relied on the same fossil fuel revolution that powered westward expansion in the United States, the growth of the middle class (and a persistent cycle of capital deepening) and the rise of tourism as mode to recognize the totalizing discourse of industrial modernity. More importantly, I think, is that tourism embodies this tension between the convenient familiarity of the modern world and the quest for authenticity. The rutted routes of the oil patch are literally inscribed with the movements central to a historic Bakken taskscape that has all but eliminated the possibility of being local. The stunning night vistas offered by flaring natural gas from a hotel parking lot in Watford City are in some ways indistinguishable from the well-known satellite photo that shows the Bakken aglow with light from flares and electrical lights. 

The term “the Bakken” further demonstrates how modernity has coopted the very authenticity that its absence was though to produce. While I have used the Bakken as shorthand for a part of the 200,000 sq. mile oil patch in western North Dakota, eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan, the name derives from the North Dakota farmer Henry Bakken and, in fact, refers to a relatively thin layer of oil bearing rock some 3 miles below the surface of the ground. As another well-known image demonstrated, Bakken wells if extended above ground would produce a skyline that would put Manhattan to shame. Last year’s controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline further reveals how even the physically occluded Bakken taskscape stands prominent in our modern awareness of that place, perhaps, leaving only the Native American landscapes as a window into an authentic North Dakota past. 

In a sense, then, a tourist guide is not some kind of cypher that reveals hidden meaning to the educated visitor to the Bakken, but an effort to understand the complexities of the modern world. In this way, I think that the tourist guide offers “an archaeology” in a Foucauldian sense of describing the physical discourse of petroculture in the Bakken taskscape. The man camps, convenience stores, small-town mainstreets, rail yards, tank farms, drill and workover rigs, roadside memorials, boot cleaners, pallets fences, frank tanks, bobbing sucker rod pumps, and salt water wells are not foreign to our modern world, but part of its fabric. Oil production and the habits formed by its consumption is the modern world, and ss my editor noted when our book was still in draft, there are no locals in the modern world, only tourists. 

Writing Wednesday: The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape

I’m continuing to work on my paper for next week’s Northern Great Plains History Conference. I started the paper with a little introduction on Monday, and here’s the second part of it.

With any luck, I can get this wrapped up over the weekend… stay tuned:

“The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape” (part 2)

This is bring us to tourists and tourism. The same processes that opened Western North Dakota to white, European settlement, also created the modern tourist. The industrial revolution, propelled by the increased use of fossil fuels, transformed the economic landscape of Britain and the U.S. by producing a growing and prosperous middle class. The middle class increasingly committed their surplus capital to enjoying the industrial improvements in transportation via rail and steamship and This produced a growing sense of cosmopolitanism among the middle-class and introduced a world where – to use David Harvey’s observation – the speed of travel and production increasingly compressed space. For the modern tourist, the world was becoming both smaller and more familiar.

The tourist guide became a vital traveling companion for the modern tourist. It organized the chaotic world outside the train station or port into well-defined sites and experiences. Along with the tourist guide came hotels, resorts, and conveniences designed to offer a safe and controlled vantage point for the tourist to survey the world. The railroad brought late 19th and early 20th century tourists to the American west where they could experience nature from the comfort of well-appointed cabins or chalet style hotels that sprung up around the newly-designed national parks. As our contemporary world continues to shrink, we encounter the experience of industrial travel in the familiarity of the modern airport which represents the quintessential example of Marc Auge’s concept of non-places. These liminal, interstitial spaces designed to facility familiar movement is likewise expressed in the landscape of the modern suburb which is defined by its connectivity and convenience. Connected to the urban core by a tangle of highways, dotted with tidy mass transit stops, and replete with anonymous sounding subdivisions, strip malls, and manicured lawns, the experience of suburban life is eliminates the need for localness in the name of familiar convenience. 

At the same time, even the most modern tourist continues to crave the experience of authenticity even if it remains neatly bounded by familiar conveniences. In fact, this tension between convenience and authenticity defined the modernizing character of the tourists’ gaze and affirmed the cosmopolitan position of the tourist and the superiority of the modern world. In the 20th century world, the experience of authenticity might be as limited as a conveniently choreographed luau on the carefully maintained lawn of a Hawaiian resort or as adventurous as a night in a well-prepared Berber tent in the Moroccan desert. The tourist might also find authenticity in their encounters below the surface of their own modern life. World Fairs, for example, represented the quintessential tourist destination of the modern world, allowed the casual visitor a glimpse into the workings of the industrial age through exhibitions for modern manufacturing and technologies. 

Industrial tourism exposed the tourist to authenticity by revealing the hidden mechanisms through which the modern world functioned. The wonders of technology presented at world fairs became a staple of tours of manufacturing facilities and plants as well as monumental industrial installations like the Hoover Dam. In the late-20th century, the rise in ecotourism or even poorism which leads the environmentally conscious or “ethically woke” tourists to experience authentic nature or human experiences ostensibly foreign from their own. As numerous critics have pointed out, the quest for authenticity in the modern world makes for some bizarre ethical compromises.

To return to our tourist guide to the Bakken… 

Teaching Tuesday: The Great Mistake and Higher Education Budgets

Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2017) should be required reading for anyone who is interested (or contractually obligated to be interested) in the University of North Dakota budget debate. Newfield served on various campus and system wide committees at UCSB and in the University of California System during several rounds of drastic budget cuts in the early 21st century. His experiences collaborating with his colleagues, pouring over the budgets, and interacting with regents, administrators and the public have imparted his scholarship with a hard-won practical edge that both makes it more immediate in impact (this is not a theoretical book), but also demonstrates the conceptual fractures that exist throughout the current conversation about higher education.

Newfield centers his argument on the broad concept of “privatization” which he used to describe the process whereby public universities turn to private capital, services, and institutions to support their public mission. He explains the process through a six step chart where each step inform the next. It begins with the university retreating from public goods which results in the need to seek outside sponsors and regular tuition hikes. These provide a reason for public funding to be cut, especially during economic downturns, and not restored, increasingly amounts of this deficit shifted to student debts, the growing use of private venders in a quest to do more with less, uneven backfilling across systems where students who would benefit the most from high levels of investment receive the least funding, and a growing maze of arguments based upon “post-productivity capitalism” where credentialing a workforce matters more than training the next generation of leaders.

IMG 1185

Newfield claims his book is meant for parents and even students who are struggling to understand why higher education appears to struggle to fulfill its promises, but the book actually speaks to a much wider audience and brings together a much confusing and complicated set of discourses that have all claimed particular insights into recent changes in higher education.

For example, “privatization” serves as a useful way to understand how universities have explicitly retreated from working toward the public good. As Charles Dorn’s recent book has attempted to show, universities have shifted their attention more and more to engaging with the market in ways that range from their emphasis on “work force development” to public-private partnerships seeking to monetize university research. Newfeild add nuance to this kind of privatization, by seeing it as both a cause for the fiscal (and cultural crisis) at the university as well as a result of this crisis and the shift toward a viewing the market as the ultimate arbiter of public good.

Elsewhere in his book, Newfield discuss the breakdown between the desperate need for universities, their administrators, and their supporters in the legislature to make they case to the general public for universities as a public good. He demonstrates the complicated political and cultural context for – to use Stefan Collini’s term – “speaking of universities” in the public sphere. In part, university administrators are stuck between the eroding confidence in public institutions (despite their quiet ubiquity in our everyday life) and growing confidence in “free market” technological solutionism, the potential of commercialization, longstanding (if mostly quietly held) belief that the poor are morally or intellectual deficient, and persistent, misplaced faith in the rising economic tide lifting all ships. These are powerful currents in the public discourse that both shape the views of university administrators (and faculty) as well as the views of the general public to whom any appeal to the public good must be made. 

Newfield even engages the conclusions reached by Arum and Roska in their widely read and cited Academically Adrift which argues that in many cases, universities fail to improve fundamental student skills. Newfield shifts the responsibility for these failings from faculty, institutions, or even students to the existing funding models of higher education which tend to support students at private schools or upper tier public institutions with higher levels of funding per student which allows for more intensive teaching practices that emphasize writing, reading, and one-on-one . At UND, for example, funding cuts will lead to larger classes, less teaching support from graduate assistants, and increasing reliance on digitally mediated approaches to instruction and evaluation. While digital tools may serve to bridge in part, Newfield emphasized that, in general, digital solutions have not yet delivered on their promise to make conventional teaching practices obsolete. There will be risks and these risks will both cost money and impact student learning.

Finally, Newfield does take the reader into the weeds of higher education finance with a brilliant little discussion of how sponsored research (predominantly grants) impact the bottom line at universities. Generally speaking, in contemporary academic culture, grants are seen as an important source of income for universities. Despite this, it is well known among administrators, at least, that grants often cost the university money despite the fact that most grants bring with them funds for the indirect cost designed to support the cost of administering the grant, the ongoing investments in research infrastructure, and the longterm cost of the grant in depreciation of equipment and maintenance. In general, Newfield demonstrates, the cost of research exceeds the funds provided by most major federal grants and this gap is covered by other funds. This is intentional as the federal government, in particular, hoped that by limiting the funds not directly focused on research, they will force universities to be more efficient. Instead, it has pushed universities to do research at a loss and continue to go after grants – year after year with growing intensity – to feed the research beast and like a Ponzi scheme director who is increasingly worried about investors making a call, universities must continue to push for grants or, more frequently, seek to privatize support for public research through partnerships with companies, moving tuition dollars to cover research losses, and endowments. These moves, in turn, compromise research for the public good by making it increasingly beholden to private interests (via corporate partnerships and fund raising).

Newfield’s book is sophisticated, smart, and very readable, and unlike many books that seek to understand and resist the current climate in higher education, Newfield’s book shows all the signs of adding persistent value to the ongoing conversation.  Go and get it.