Universities and Patina

Over the weekend, I re-read Shannon Dawdy’s book Patina: A Profane Archaeology. I blogged briefly about how this work shaped some of my views of the accelerated culture of the Bakken oil patch. But having read it again, and more closely, in preparation for a formal review, I was really struck by her description of New Orleans as a space of contest modernity where a pervasive interest in patina represents both a challenge to commodity capitalism and a willingness to complicate the conventions of linear time. In Dawdy’s analysis objects with patina are valued not simply because they’re old, but because they show signs of habitual use over time and the stories associated with that use remain embedded in their fabric and add value. This value emerges only in the space of the contemporary world where these objects circulate among individuals who recall, communicate, and add to the object’s story, and in the right time and context, these objects acquire far greater value than their utility or antiquity alone would suggest. Dawdy notes that the fetishization of these object “resists compulsive obsolescence and thus slows down consumption and discard.” In short, these objects have a kind of situated value that produce in collaboration with individuals who possess or know about them. Objects with patina continuously produce and depend upon various individual and broader social relations that provide them with meaning. 

I got to thinking about Dawdy’s definition of patina in the context of my work with the Wesley College Documentation Project on the campus of the University of North Dakota. One of the things that my exceptional class of students have encouraged me to see is that universities represent distinct spaces within American society where time and space work differently. On the one hand, this makes sense as university life continues to represent a rite of passage where students exist in moments of communitas, encounter liminal space, and negotiate one of the most obvious examples of heterotopia (and, Dawdy might add, chronotopia, where distinctive experience of time exist often fused to the distinctively heterotopic space of the university campus). Like New Orleans universities often prize and value patina whether officially celebrated in the old buildings or monuments on campus or associated with the traces of the collective experiences of students in less public, official, and obvious ways.  

Patina on university campuses embodies the kind of conflicted temporality that Dawdy saw in New Orleans as they oscillate between being the engines for social and economic progress and places of memory, tradition, and social cohesion. The tensions between functionality and tradition on college campuses goes beyond the simple practice of “invented traditions” which have a particularly visible place on college campuses. Traditions embodied in architecture, rituals, and practices (that sometimes defy official administrative efforts to suppress them) range from the persistent, monumental expressions of past aspirations to the gradual or even abrupt accumulation of meaning in unexpected places and spaces across campus.

Public universities much like New Orleans, also experience booms and busts, that leads to the uneven accumulation of buildings, objects, and experiences. At UND, a campus monument celebrates the the experience of students and faculty during the Great Depression and the post-War boom has left indelible marks in the buildings and spaces across campus and the persistence of certain familiar objects across campus – from desks to flickering florescent light fixtures – speaks to the various occasions of renovation and innovation. 

The Wesley College Documentation Project has observed various aspects of this kind of temporal mixing as students are both saddened to know that the university has plans to demolish Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls. They are old – largely dating to the first decade of the 20th century – and have a distinct architecture and patina and for some have acquired a kind of right to exist on campus. For others, of course, these buildings are outmoded and obsolete. This embodies the tension between the functionality of the university and how it generates meaning to the university community.

At the same time, booms and busts are present throughout these buildings with the persistence of older furniture and even older technology either kept in reserve or actively in use suggesting a conscious effort to curate and extend the life of particular tools. What is curious in the 21st century on the campus of University of North Dakota is that the availability of surplusing is greatly reduced. This reflects both the limited market for older furniture, for example, on campus, and the growing preference for new furniture and the appearance of modernity on campus. Moreover, the new furniture, which is frequently particle board and fairly flimsy especially in comparison to mid-century steel desks is less likely to survive multiple moves across campus. Ironically, the absence of surplus space means that older furniture might be more likely to remain in circulation because at present, facilities does not have a convenient strategy for removing and recycling unused furniture.

The ability to recycle furniture is a more functional observation on the material culture of campus than the decision to preserve or destroy older buildings, but both of these approaches to campus space demonstrate differing concepts of time at play across a university campus. For the former, older office furnishing or technologies that haver persistent use value might be curated and recycled – especially in light of the boom/bust funding cycle provided by grants – but a preference is for newer furniture not because of its superiority in a functional sense, but because of its appearance of newness and contemporary professionalism. Campus buildings sometimes reflect these priorities as well, but thread-worn and patinated buildings likewise have value in that they embody traditional aspirations of universities with ancient practices and habits. Whereas old furniture might exude negative connotations associated with lack of resources or even unprofessional workspaces, old buildings represent the persistent values of a campus and respect for the past. These are not, however, accidental manifestations, any more than deliberate efforts to curate objects of persistent value, but decisions grounded in a strategy designed to shape student, alumni, and even faculty and staff appreciation of campus. Campus patina, then, emerges from multiple places ranging from administrative priorities, curation strategies, informal rituals of every day life, and various accidents that etch experiences into the physical fabric of the university in various social, spatial, and chronological contexts.  

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s the Friday before spring break here in North Dakotaland and we’re bracing for the massive influx of spring break revelers who will come to the Red River Valley to enjoy flat countryside, cold weather, and soggy snow. 

To avoid the rush, I’ll be staying busy on the Wesley College Documentation Project, some college basketballing games on the old TV, some cricket (of course), and some books and writing that need to be attention. Plus, dogs.

If you have to go out into the mob of celebrating students, here are some quick hits and varia:

Teaching Thursday: Using a Building for Unstructured Teaching

This semester I’m teaching two very different classes to a similar (and somewhat overlapping) group of students. The student response to the two different classes is pretty different and I think I have a grasp as to why (although one can never entirely isolate the variables!) and I’m not sure that it’s entirely “fixable,” but it is at least intriguing enough to me to warrant a little blog post.

As a bit of preface, I have always benefited from structure. When structure is absent, I tend to create it. I’m a creature of routines, self-imposed deadlines, and arbitrary, but deeply held goals. Academically, I always sought out structured educational environments and gravitated toward languages which required daily discipline and history which conducted a syncopated rhythm of writing and reading. I have generally tried to bring this sense of structure to my classes, but over the past decade or so of teaching, I’ve found that, in some cases, my love of structure has produced a kind of compliance culture among students who see the structure less as an opportunity to systematically explore a topic and more as a series of tasks to be completed for points and, ultimately, a grade. As a result, I’ve gradually backed off from some of the more structured aspects of classes and now even build open days into my classes so that we have more flexibility to approach a challenging concept or skill or just get a breather. 

This semester, I’m teaching a three-credit honors class on the UND budget and guiding students through the complexities of a large institution with a large budget to get them to understand where various decisions and structures impact their lives. I’ve tried to balance the need for structure and the need for more conversational and exploratory time in the class. Over the semester, though, I’ve probably tipped the balance more toward structure lately. The results have been a bit predictable as the class has slowly slid into a kind of sleepy malaise as the students look to me to frame the next challenge. This isn’t bad, but as we have six weeks left to the semester and the larger project of completing a small book on the budget for students is going to require creativity, energy, and independence. I hope I haven’t stifled that.

Some of the same students are taking another, one-credit, class focused on documenting two buildings associated with Wesley College on UND’s campus and what we’ve called the “Wesley College Documentation Project.” This class is completely unstructured. Aside from causing me some late-night anxiety and following a loose set of practices – for example, we’re systematic in how we document the modern spaces and objects left behind in the building – but the goals of the activity remain pretty open ended. What’s remarkable is that the students are more engaged and enthusiastic.

Of course, the class isn’t even bound by the structure of the classroom, much less the tyranny of the contractual syllabus or a set of well (and narrowly) defined education outcomes. In fact, the class is much more like play than my typical classes. The time in the abandoned buildings is filled with music, laughter, as well as pondering, serious conversations, and unanswered questions. While this isn’t a profound observation, I wonder whether students don’t actually get more out of such an open-ended, play-oriented class.  

Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work… 

NDQuesday: Three Thoughts on a Tuesday Morning

Today is one of those super hectic days that’ll run from before 7 am until after 8 pm with barely time for quick bites to eat and think between obligations. These obligations are almost all good and fun, but “wowf” will today be full.

There are three things on my mind about NDQ this week, though, and I present them here.

The First Thing

I worked this weekend on trimming and streamlining my contribution to the NDQ special issue on Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I did four things. First, I tried to make it all a bit more direct a bit less like an academic paper. Whenever I try to write for a public audience, I find myself being dragged back into academic writing. So I cut out the most egregious examples of academic writing (including the more or less dreadful bibliographic paragraphs). This helped focus my article on NDQ as an example of the situation in the humanities on a national level. Third, I tried to develop my concept of the billboard and the factory a bit more clearly. To my mind, this is really the heart of the paper and whatever its flaws, I think it offers a genuine perspective on my view of higher education. In a sentence: we’re are too interested in demonstrating the efficiency of our methods (this is the billboard which is constantly telling our stakeholders that we’re efficient, careful with public funds, and open to private partnerships) and not interested enough in selling the product (which is education, research, and various non-market advantages to society). Maybe the metaphor is a bit weak or tortured, but I’m sticking with it. Finally, the original version of the paper ended in a depressing way. While I still feel pessimistic about the future of the current version of higher education in the face of the long trajectory of American (and, really, global) political culture.

If you’re interested in how the sausage is made, check out the newest version of my paper here.

The Second Thing

In my class on the UND Budget (Cuts), I’ve become pretty interested in the idea of privatization and value. Christopher Newfield has argued that privatization has cost public higher education dearly in that most ploys to privatize aspects of university life has lead to greater costs for students, fewer resources for faculty and teaching, less efficiency and fewer opportunities for innovation. In other words, privatization is more about transferring public wealth to the private sphere and less about any real benefits for higher education.

UND is poised to see several major private initiatives on campus in the coming months. Like most public universities we have already enjoyed some of the opportunities from public/private partnerships and seen privatization nibble along the edges of university life with private dorm-style apartments ringing campus, private vendors leasing spaces in the student union, private companies handling key function like email, course management software, and the technology help desk. In many of these cases, the private sector has leveraged economies of scale and experience to provide a superior solution than could be achieved in house (but at an obvious cost). At the same time, each contract has eroded some of the university’s autonomy to function and made it a partner both in generating wealth for shareholders who have no real interest in the mission of the university and in producing the next generation of students as consumers. In particular, privatization reinforces the idea that the market is the main measure of value.

This of course, leads me to the terrifying topic of value. For most of my academic career, I’ve looked at the concept of value with fear and admiration. On the one hand, the folks who speak most fluently on value are clearly steeped in Marx and Das Kapital and The Poverty of Philosophy (and elsewhere). It’s complicated and to acquire even a basic familiarity with the ideas requires sustained commitment to a dense body of literature.

Despite these challenges, it seems essential to understand value in the context of higher education. What is higher education worth and how do we measure it?

Where do I start?

The Third Thing

This is still a bit of a secret, but only a little bit of a secret. Next week at the Associate of Writers and Writing Programs, the University of Nebraska Press will announce that they have reached a verbal agreement to become the publishing partner with North Dakota Quarterly. This will be a big step for NDQ which has since 1911 been published in house at UND.

Part of me is happy and relieved that Nebraska will take on NDQ and help us expand our reader and subscriber base, to manage subscriptions and distribution, and to help with production.

Part of my is a bit bummed, though, as it makes the end of an era of independent publishing of NDQ on our campus and it feels a bit like we’re selling out. Of course, selling out is, as always, relative. UNP is a non-profit, academic press, so it’s not like we’ve sold to Pearson or some profit-driven publisher. And while we will, inevitably, lose some autonomy and independence, our editorial independence will be maintained. And, we’ll have a partner to help us expand our reach and our impact.

After all, the goal of NDQ isn’t just produce a journal, but to produce a journal that matters.

Update on the Wesley College Documentation Project

After about 5 partial days of fieldwork, we’re beginning to get a grasp on the Wesley College Documentation Project. For those unfamiliar with this project, a team of students, faculty, and staff are working to document the two original Wesley College buildings on the camps of the University of North Dakota. With the exception of Robertson Hall (1930), these buildings were built in the first decade of the 20th century to serve Wesley College, an innovated Methodist College associated with the UND. Larimore and Sayre Halls served as women’s and men’s dormitories, respectively, and the Corwin and Robertson Halls provided space for music and religious studies classes as well as college offices. In 1965, Wesley College became officially part of UND. Corwin/Larimore Hall underwent significant modifications in the late 1970s to accommodate faculty offices and research spaces. Robertson/Sayre has been transformed in a less systematic way, but served similar functions in recent times. 

So far, the team has focused on Corwin and Larimore Halls and hopes to move to Robertson/Sayre by mid-March. The project has been shaped by a sense of urgency in documenting the buildings before asbestos mitigation begins and the buildings are razed in late May or June. So far, we’ve documented most of the third and fourth floors of Corwin/Larimore hall in a fairly detailed way with over 500 photographs and dozens of carefully described spaces. This data collection, however, has moved a bit ahead of our interpretation, but the latter is catching up as we have become more familiar with the spaces. 

Several ideas have begun to crystalize as we’ve made our way through these spaces. 

1. 50 Objects. I’ve asked the field teams to identify 50 objects that tell the story of Corwin/Larimore Hall. We will photograph and document each object in greater detail and prepare a catalogue that reflects the diverse history and functions of these spaces. We will also include a brief description of why this object is significant to the history of the building. 

2. Hearing Corwin Hall. In the original design, Corwin Hall 300 was a recital hall for Wesley College and designed with this acoustic function in mind. After the 1978 modifications to the space, in which an enclosed stairwell was added that encroached upon the stage area of the recital hall and comprised the acoustics of the space. Even after that modification, there remains a distinct sound to the room and we’ve arranged for one of the old “punk archaeology” colleagues, Mike Wittgraf, to bring his keyboard rig and some microphones to capture the sound of both Corwin 302, but also the rest of the Corwin/Larimore hall.

3. Documenting Abandonment. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Wesley College Documentation Project is that we are witnessing the building in the brief gap between abandonment and demolition. The distinct character of the assemblage produced by Corwin/Larimore Halls speaks to complex network of relationships that shape decisions to move, recycle (through officially surplus objects for reuse or resale elsewhere), or abandon everyday objects in academic spaces. Moreover, the assemblage is historically constituted as the decision to discard or keep obsolete or outdated objects over time produced the assemblage preserved in the building. While archaeologists have rightly rejected the so-called “Pompeii Premise,” the assemblage present in Corwin/Larimore does represent a frozen moment in time that embodies a series of short and longterm historical decisions. Unpacking this assemblage and attempting to recognize the reasons for its form provides a useful commentary on the role of objects in our everyday and institutional life.   

4. History and Memory on the UND Landscape. The longterm plan for the space left behind by the Wesley College buildings is to move the Stone House (also called the Oxford House) to the space. The Colonial revival building was designed by Joseph Bell DeRemer in 1902 and originally served as the home of UND’s presidents, and as a billboard for the university. In the early 1970s, it received a systematic restoration and then it became the home of the UND alumni association. During my time on campus, it has served as an all purpose reception space. By erasing the physical memory of Wesley College and overwriting it with the Stone House, UND is rewriting the historical landscape of campus at a moment when it is also reimagining its own future.  

5. Performance. The Wesley College Documentation Project team generally agrees that documenting these buildings is more than just a historical or archaeological task and is part of larger effort to demonstrate that we care about the history of UND’s campus. As part of that, we’re trying to figure out ways to make our work public that go beyond the typical websites, articles, or presentations that scholars have long used to present their work. My hope is that we do something public and performative to demonstrate our interest in these buildings and to mark their place on campus for the public and future generations of students and stakeholders. The Wesley College experiment was a distinct and unique one that had a marked influence on the early history of UND. There is something worth commemorating here. 

Snichimal Vayuchil

It is pretty exciting to announce the paper publication of the first volume of the new North Dakota Quarterly Supplement Series. This series is a collaboration with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota designed to provide a bit more space for poetry, fiction, or other creative projects that embrace the same values as the Quarterly, but can also stand on their own. The books will be available as open access digital downloads and print-on-demand paperback.

Maya Cover Feature 01

The first in this series is Paul Worley’s edited and translated collection of Tsotsil Mayan poetry, Snichimal Vayuchil, which has a new introduction by Gloria E. Chacón. 

You can download or purchase the book from the NDQ site here or from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota site here


This project has had a special place in my heart because it involves a collaboration with Paul Worley. Five years ago, UND had this gaggle of ambitious and creative junior scholars: Paul Worley, Kyle Conway, Brett Ommen, Crystal Alberts, Mike Wittgraf, and Joel Jonientz. I was lucky enough to hang out with them and, from time to time, scheme and dream up projects.

In fact, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota was a project that Joel Jonientz and Kyle Conway and I dreamt up together, and from its earliest days we had envisioned that Paul Worley would have some part in it. (Actually, I still want to publish a series of old baseball manuals with some historical introductions… I wonder if there exist manuals in Spanish, from Mexico or the Dominican Republic or Cuba that Paul could translate and edit?).

As readers of this blog know, Joel Jonientz died four years ago, Paul Worley, Kyle Conway, and Bret Ommen left UND, Crystal Alberts and Mike Wittgraf are still around and when I get a chance, we catch up and still scheme a little. Kyle Conway and I still work closely together on The Digital Press. But none of our collaboration has the same kind of frenetic energy. Maybe it’s because we lack the critical mass of people here in Grand Forks, maybe because we’ve settled into our mid-career malaise, or maybe just because we don’t see each other every weekend, but we haven’t really collaborated like we used to.

This book with Paul Worley, reminded me of those days when we used to scheme up big plans over beers and bitch about things we couldn’t change. I think you’ll see that Paul and I find some ways to collaborate more over the next few years. And who knows, maybe a enough of the old energy is still around to bring the gang back together. (I’m thinking the first Maya Language Space Opera… ) 



More on the Historiography of Late Roman Cyprus or Writing up the Pyla-Koutsopetria Excavations (part 2).

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to pull into shape a conclusion for the second volume from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project. I posted part of that conclusion a couple of weeks back, here’s some more (with a bit of overlap!):

Recent work on Cyprus has looked to recontextualizing the archaeology of the island in three basic ways. First, archaeologists have sought to continue the long-standing effort to locate Cyprus within the larger Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine worlds. G. Hill’s and T. Mitford’s argument that Cyprus was a quiet backwater of the Roman East, based largely on historical sources, has been fundamentally challenges by the work of Dimitri Michaelides (e.g. 1996), John Hayes’s publication of the ceramics from the House of Dionysios at Paphos (1991), and the work of John Lund (2003; 2006; 2015). These scholars and their younger contemporaries (e.g. Leonard 2005, Gordon 2012) have demonstrated that during the first seven centuries AD, Cyprus was deeply embedded in the economic life of the Roman East, traded extensively with their neighbors, reflected wider trends across the empire, and exploited their natural and agricultural resources for both public and private expressions of power and wealth. In the 21st century, recent work on connectivity, globalization, revised ideas of insularity, and hybridized culture have shaped our view of Roman Cyprus as a sphere for distinct forms of cultural and economic interaction that extends far beyond monumental architecture. The quantitative analysis of imported and local ceramics, evidence from shipwrecks and ceramic production sites (Leidwanger 2013; Demesticha 2013; Demesticha and Michaelides 2001), and survey and excavation at small harbors, emporia, villages, and non-monumental buildings have all contributed to a view of Cyprus that is deeply embedded in the Roman and Late Roman world. Moreover, by embracing theoretically rich concepts like globalization, insularity, and hybridity, they local the study of Roman and Late Roman Cyprus within a larger conversation about the island that extends from the Bronze Age (e.g. Knapp 2008) across most of antiquity (e.g. Counts 2008).

The long tradition intensive and extensive survey archaeology on Cyprus has contributed to recent efforts to expand the scope of our understanding of Roman period on the island into the non-urban, ex-urban and suburban settlement. This complements a large trend toward rejecting the Finleyean conception of the ancient “consumer” city that merely drew resources from the countryside. In its place, scholars like Horden and Purcell (2000) have proposed a world of densely connected microregions that include both urban and rural spaces. This upset the tidy binary of producer and consumer spaces, and even in urban and rural (Viekou 2009; 2010) in the Roman countryside and offered new contexts to make sense of rural sites. Cyprus, despite its deserved reputation for dense urbanism, had a bustling or “busy” countryside. Hector Catling directed the Cyprus Survey Project in the 1950s and documented the Kornos cave (Catling 1970) and the Dhiorios settlement and ceramic works on the Kormakiti peninsula (Catling 1972). Both of these sites were rural and offered substantial assemblages of both local and regional Late Antique ceramics including kilns for the production of cooking ware vessels at Dhiorios. Excavations in the 1990s by Charalambos Bakirtzis revealed the massive ex-urban site of Ay. Georgios-Peyias with three basilicas, a bath, warehouses and other structure dating, it would appear, to Late Antiquity (Bakirtzis 1995). The initial excavations at Kousopetria by Maria Hadjicosti, at Kopetra, by Marcus Rautman (2003), at Alassa by Pavlos Florentzos (1996), and at Maroni-Petrera by S. Manning (2002) represented a watershed decade in the archaeology of non-urban Cyprus. The excavations at Kopetra and Maroni Petrera emerged from intensive pedestrian survey projects which likewise expanded our knowledge of Roman and Late Roman countryside. Recent work in the Troodos mountains by the Troodos Areas Environmental Survey Project (Given et al. 2013), for example, has demonstrated that the Troodos mountains continued to be exploited for iron into the Roman period and a number of other survey projects have produced a “busy countryside” of sites ranging from villages to isolated farmsteads (Rautman 2003), production sites, and even monumental Christian architecture (Procopiou 2013). While the excavation of these sites often added to the catalogue of Christian churches, more importantly, they also expanded our knowledge of the fabric of non-urban places and the productive landscape of the island and demonstrated the connections between non-urban spaces and the wider region. The Cyprus that emerged from this research was less a series of dots along the coast of the island, and more a tapestry of interconnected regions that includes places both on the island and in the wider Mediterranean.

Finally, Scholars of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus, like so much of the Eastern Mediterranean, have increasingly placed the island chronologically within “the long Late Antiquity” which recognizes fundamental continuity between the 5th and 8th or even 9th centuries in the Eastern Mediterranean. For Cyprus, “long Late Antiquity” is complicated and punctuated by at least two Arab raids on the island that disrupted political and social life on the island and left their marks in both the architecture and archaeology. These raids, however, rather than being points of discontinuity in Late Antiquity, marked the start of the famous, if controversial, condominium period on the island that embodied aspects of both continuity and discontinuity in the island’s political arrangement and relationship with neighboring regions. Andreas Dikigoropoulos’s 1962 dissertation defined 7th to 10th century Cyprus in the famous phrase of the 8 th century pilgrim Willabald as “betwixt Greeks and Saracens.” His attention to the architecture of these centuries built upon A.H.M. Megaw’s studies of the vaulted churches of Cyprus (Megaw 1946), and, more recently, C. Stewart (2008, 2010) has continued to study the architecture of this period as a key to the island’s social, economic, religious and political status during these centuries. D. Metcalf (2004, 2009) and L. Zavagno (2011; 2011-12; 2017) have collated evidence from coins and seals to track continued ties between the economic and political ties between Cyprus, the Arab Caliphate to the east and Byzantine state in Anatolia and the Aegean. Important work has also focused on understanding the chronology of Late Roman ceramics both on Cyprus and across the region. P. Reynolds (2014; 2010), J. Vroom (2004; 2005; 2007), A. Vionis (2009), and P. Armstrong (2009), among many others, have pushed some common ceramics types, namely forms of widely traded Late Roman red slips and common transport amphoras, from the 5th and 6th century into the 7th and even 8th centuries. This work, in turn, has challenged the dating of buildings and sites on Cyprus by pushing destruction levels later than the Arab raids and demonstrating the urban areas continued to be economically connected and vital into the later 7th or even 8th centuries.

NDQuesday: The Humanities in the Age of Austerity: An Epilogue

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received some very helpful feedback on my article for the upcoming North Dakota Quarterly special issue on the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. The most significant critique was that my essay may have diagnosed the problem, but it does not really offer a solution. More than that, the essays starts with a focus on NDQ, but by the conclusion, NDQ has settled into the background as the detritus of global trends in higher education. 

In short, my essay is depressing, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m not really a depressing person and while I certainly despair for the future of the humanities (if the humanities does anything, it imparts in us an immense capacity for despair as it reveals over and over again, the basically selfish character of humanity), I am not the type to allow even the most rational opportunities despair to overwhelm my impulse to do something and find my way to make a plausible argument for some form of productive resistance.

With this in mind, I realized that I need both to tighten up my essay throughout and I need to add a conclusion or epilogue. 

Here’s my first swing at it:

It is my hope that by continuing to edit and publish North Dakota Quarterly, we offer a challenge to prevailing direction of the modern university in two ways. First, North Dakota Quarterly presents a counter-billboard to efforts to paint the university as the rational outcome of market-driven competition. If resources at the university tend to flow toward programs, degrees, and projects that can make particular arguments for their economic value, then a successful, sustainable public humanities journal demonstrates that this work can generate economic value. In other words, the persistence of NDQ gives the lie to the idea that it is not efficient or reasonable for the university to help promote and sustain the humanities in the current economic climate. More than that, by loudly persisting, it refuses to be an example of how a commitment to efficiency at the modern university should exclude the humanities. The best counter-argument to defunding the public humanities because they are not competitive, is simply refusing to lose. In fact, a particularly puckish reading of the rhetoric of sustainability at the modern university allows us to point out that NDQ can survive in the competitive space of the modern market even outside the university, whereas STEM research requires a constant stream of funds for the same outcome. It difficult to assert a situation in which the public humanities have partners that are better prepared to provide sustainable funding than exist for STEM fields which supporters point out have much higher returns on investment in the private sector. The place of the university in providing public subsidies to bolster the technologies and workforce needed of private sector at least complicates any view of a neoliberal economy functioning outside of the inefficient and interfering influence of the state.

Setting NDQ up as a counter-billboard offers a sense of the ironic satisfaction, but such gesture of resistance, are hollow if resistance alone is the goal. After all, the need for thoughtful, public interventions in the humanities goes well beyond pointing out the contradictions in a neoliberal worldview. North Dakota Quarterly continued significance depends upon its ongoing, substantive contributions to the world through the thoughtful creativity and criticism of our authors and editors. In recent years, NDQ has explore the character of transnationalism, the potential of the slow moment as an antidote the modern acceleration, the spirit of defiance in the works of Thomas McGrath, alongside a regular stream of poetry, fiction, and art to enliven a world increasingly defined by fake new and click bait. The commitment of a journal like NDQ, that my editorial board has reinforced in me over the last few months, to listen to voices from indigenous communities, marginalized groups, students and teachers, big thinkers and tinkerers, new writers and old hands, and most importantly, our readers to craft volumes that make the world better.

How to Rate Research: A Strange Little Proposal

This weekend, I got to thinking about how scholars in the humanities might rate their research productivity and quality. This line of thinking was prompted by both a new university mandate that scholars in the humanities and social sciences figure out how to rank or evaluate our publications and a reading of I. Stengers’s Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science (2018)

The problem is a long-standing one. First, as scholars a pecking order already exists, largely in our own minds, for what constitutes a good publication and what may not be. In general, this follows the basic contours of journal and publisher quality but also is riddled with meaningful exceptions and ambiguities that are significant when evaluating research for a relatively small sample like a department. Over time, I think most of us would agree that top tier journals (e.g. the American Historical Review or American Journal of Archaeology) generally publish better articles, especially over time, but this does not exclude the possibility of good articles appearing in less well regarded journals. The latter becomes particularly important when, say, reviewing the research of a smaller department, like ours, whose annual output might not map neatly onto long-standing patterns of quality. Moreover, having a nuanced system that goes beyond the typical lists of journal rating makes it possible to rate  the quality of highly specialized work that might not fit into the broad purview of many top tier journals, but is nevertheless significant. Decisions to publish specialized work destined for specialized audiences is often shaped by considerations of “fit” rather than overall ratings of journal quality. Finally, in a small department with a rather irregular output, an ideal system will allow for the occasional misfired article or publication that has higher quality than the ranking of a publication. Over time, such exceptions will become outliers as most of the best article appear in most of the best journals, but with an annual based on a small sample, these exceptions might have a meaningful impact on efforts to evaluate a department.

Here’s my proposal.

Each publication receives five scores provided by the scholar (who, in a department like ours, is the only person really able to judge the character of the field).

1. Rank. 25 points. This is the most standard evaluation of publication quality. Better quality journals and publishing houses get higher scores with the standard gaggle of top tier journals and publishing houses (Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, et c.) scoring in the top quintile and so on. This should be most susceptible to the “smell test;” that is we should be able to smell an overrated or underrated journal or publishing outfit.

2. Type. 25 points. Generally speaking the gold standard in my corner of the humanities are peer-reviewed books and articles, so these would occupy the top quintile here. The next quintile would be peer reviewed book chapters or edited peer-reviewed works, with the third quartile representing book chapters and other solicited articles. I would rank review essays, non-peer reviewed popular pieces or editorials, next and then book reviews and shorter conference proceedings in the bottom quintile. By allowing for some wiggle room in each quintile, we can distinguish between, say, a peer review in a top tier journal and one in a small regional outfit. We can also allow for various exceptions. Obviously, a 6,000 review essay in a top tier journal might be more significant and impactful than a short review essay for an online publisher. Again, most of this should follow the smell test.  

3. Fit. 25 points. One issue with the general journal rankings is that they tend to be biased toward traditional fields of study and research accessible to a large audience (and therefore sweeping and generalizable). In some ways, this is a good thing, but it also tends to overlook the daily grind of folks working to produce significant specialized knowledge, to explore overlooked periods and places in the past (cough… North Dakota or Cyprus), to chart new subfields (archaeology of the contemporary world, for example), and to develop methods or theory of most use to specialists. A fit score allows us to reward articles that appear in places where they are likely to find a receptive audience rather than simply appearing in the “to ranked” journals. Again, for a small department like ours, this rewards on an annual basis work that might not find a home in a top tier journal but has an obvious and interested audience. This would reward, say, an article in an edited volume dedicated to a narrow topic, specialized research that tends to appear in less prestigious regional or specialist journals, or even books that appear in a series developed by a regional press.  

4. Quality. 25 points. This will likely be the most controversial category in my ranking system, but I contend that most of us can be honest about the quality of our own work. In other words, we know when we write a good piece or a mediocre one, but we also know that there are times when an article or chapter simply isn’t as good as we wanted it to be (but still good enough for publication). This self-awareness also serves as the counter-balance to poor fit. For example, one of my favorite and best articles ever appeared in rather obscure Hesperia Supplement. While my fit score would be pretty low and the type and ranking of the publication, for example, would be middling, the quality of the article is high. The same could be said for my “Slow Archaeology” article in North Dakota Quarterly. Some other article of mine trend the other way, of course.

5. Other Considerations. 10 points. Like any system, there needs to be some flexibility to take into account considerations that the existing publishing and academic system does not cover. For example, a book that makes innovative use of published data, an open access publication, or even a more conventional work, like the publication of a series of lectures, that might not correlate neatly with our established categories. It would also allow for us to mark particular involved pieces of research or to denote research that has won awards or other distinctions. The considerations will have to be spelled out.


To be honest, I’m not sure that a system like this will satisfy my colleagues or the powers that have requested this kind of ranking, but to my mind, this kind of system, that takes into account rankings, types of scholarly output, fit, and quality. It allows for nuance, while at the same time offers an easy to read “quantitative” score that fits the limited attention span of the assessocracy. Finally, including “fit” and “quality” responds to some fo the factors that people like Stengers or Gary Hall’s Uberfication of the University. (2016), which critique our tendency to conform to rankings systems imposed on us from outside of our programs, disciplines, and departments. It seems to be, at least, that a system like this that is both reflective of our own values (as individual scholars) and larger trends in academia (which despite what we say, do matter) offers another path toward understanding what makes us good scholars.