Teaching Thumbelina

On the recommendation of a commenter on this post, I read Michael Serres’s Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials. (2014). As readers of this blog realize, I’ve been struggling with the growing gap between my expectations as a teacher and the expectations of my students. In particular, I have come to recognize more and more of the daily annoyances – refusing to read, refusing to follow directions, irregular grammar and style, modest levels of classroom engagement – have less to do with laziness, lack of preparation, or even just apathy, and more to do with active strategies of resistance. I find the approach to teaching has led me become more sympathetic with student attitudes and less likely to devise strategies that undermine their autonomy as learners (even if I find that their learning styles run counter to my own expectations in the classroom). In short, I’ve become more inclined to meet students where they are – bored, restive, resistant – than force them into a form that I have created.

Serres’s book is empowering because it recognizes the remarkable character of the millennial generation and suggests that it should be celebrated. In particular, he embraced the desire of millennials to be connected and to talk to one another and work and plan together rather than to lectured. For Serres, Thumbelina talks with thumbs that blur across mobile phone and table screens. Chats with multiple people simultaneously and exists within a dense network of connections. Unlike Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which presents a desperate and isolated generation only superficially connected through digital media, Serres offers a more uplifting view of a densely networked generation and any superficiality intrinsic in this form of networking as a generally positive rejection of such superficial identifiers as race, nationality, and even – to some extent – economic disparity.     

More importantly, this densely networked generation has a world of knowledge at their fingertips (or thumbs) and is no longer anxious to be told things by authorities. In fact, they are eager to discover connections – links if you will – on their own using their own networks to bring together disparate bits of information into a unified whole. In other words, they don’t need us to tell them what to do because they already do it. So when they are chatting away on their phones and laptops during our lectures, they’re not distracted, they’re working. They’re figuring life out, creating connections, and de-centering knowledge that we remain desperate to re-center.

In fact, Serres indicts the generations that constructed the modern university as the same who brought (in my words, not his) war, colonialism, neoliberal ideologies, and authoritarianism. Our students are actively resisting systems that privileged the authority of the teacher as the keeper of the knowledge and while we grow frustrated talking at them, the students are building new communities of knowledge on their own in defiance of our droning voices heavy with the past. What we need to do is meet our students where they are and enter their networks as legitimate partners in learning. (This is easier said than done in that we carry the burden of generations of privileging and commodifying access to information and we still claw at the vestiges of authority fortified by these practices, but Serres (and I) think it’s possible. In fact, it’s necessary because the next generation with their tools, techniques, and communities will continue to subvert how we do things.)

The book is short and has done more to fuel my imagination than to solidify some particular line of argument. More than that, it’s overwhelmingly positive. I’m increasingly fatigued by articles that tell me that I need to slow down (and to realize that I contributed to this is painful), to read less, to say “no,” and to savor the moment. I wonder if I share more with my students than the authors of these works. I want to read more. I want to speed up. I want to do less with more things. And most importantly, I just want to do stuff. I get tired to talking about things, building skills, practicing, planning, and learning. Maybe this is why I found Serres work so refreshing.  

Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline

It seems like quite a few of my colleagues have been following with interest the Dakota Access Pipeline crisis and the protest initiated by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that has quickly garnered international attention. The issues at stake involve North Dakota’s mercurial petroleum economy, the challenge of extracting, moving, and using oil without damaging the environment, the need to recognize and understand a range of cultural sensitivities, and the role of archaeology in managing material cultural resources of the entire community (not just when its convenient or when it fulfills one’s cultural explanation).

Needless to say, I feel profoundly unqualified to address any of these issues much less their complex intersection that gave rise to the Cannon Ball protest camp. Fortunately, my colleague Sharon Carson, over at North Dakota Quarterly, compiled a wide range of links that provide a range of (largely sympathetic) perspectives on both the Cannon Ball protest camp and the larger DAPL crisis. 

So go read her post today and surf around the links that she provided!

The Digital Press is Growing Up

One of the most rewarding parts of my job lately is bringing academic publishing back to the University of North Dakota. This morning, I submitted the first advertisement for books by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. It’ll appear on the inside cover of the academic program for this fall’s American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting and will promote our newest title which should arrive in a few weeks: Erin Walcek Averett, Jody Michael Gordon, and Derek B. Counts, Mobilizing the Past: The Potential of Digital Archaeology.

To be completely honest, I find it a little depressing to pay to advertise for my press. I guess I had naively hoped that the social media energy behind each title would provide a kind of de-centered targeting advertising. But at the same time, it is exciting to be able to respond to the concerns of my authors and to provide the best opportunity to get their work to the largest possible audience. Fortunately, I also had financial support from my authors and advice from volunteers as well as professional graphic designers, and a good bit of patience from everyone involved. The advertisement will also lead to a rejiggering of The Digital Press homepage to advertise our three archaeology related titles.

I feel bit bad not including K. J. Skarstein’s War with the Sioux on this page, but I reckon it was a bit too far a field for ASOR. To make up for it, I’m very pleased to announce that our little press has moved over 1000 copies of this title (750+ downloads and 200+ in sales). If you haven’t downloaded and enjoyed this title, you should do it now!

Digital Press Ad ASOR 2016 01

When I first started this project, my good friend and co-conspirator Bret Weber encouraged me to do more research into how presses actually functioned. I still think that this was great advice and as our catalogue of book creeps inexorably to the double digits (heady times for a one-man show!) and I’m getting more pressure and expectations from my authors, I might have to actually do something about it. Putting together a book and distributing it digitally is one thing, figuring out how to make these processes sustainable and to expand our reach is another. Stay tuned for more from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Fall has sprung here in North Dakotaland with the high today in the mid-60s, leaves changing on trees, and college football in the air. The crispness in the air reminds us all that this is the time of the semester when we all have too much work to do and far too many distractions. 

I hope I can add a few more to your list with these quick hits and varia:

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Data, Digital Archaeology, and Publishing

To short things this morning related to digital archaeology. 

First, abstracts were due last night for the Society of American Archaeology Annual Meeting next spring, so there was the predictable flurry of activity. I generally don’t do much with the SAA conference, but this year there was some interest in a panel on digital archaeology, I’ll contribute to a paper with Erin Walcek Averett, Derek Counts, and Jody Gordon.

Here’s our abstract: 

“From Trench to Tablet: Field Recording, Interpreting, and Publishing in the Age of Digital Archaeology”

Since the arrival of robust mobile tablet devices in 2010, archaeological documentation has increasingly become born-digital. The adoption of digital tools and practices has not gone unnoticed, with reactions ranging from enthusiastic acceptance to outright skepticism. Significantly, scholars are beginning to offer more critical and reflexive views of the issues surrounding the use of mobile devices in archaeological fieldwork, interpretation, and dissemination. The ability to disseminate digital data directly from connected devices to a global audience threatens to destabilize traditional standards of archaeological documentation practices, which, in part, used media to define the stages of knowledge production: handmade, paper documents defined the provisional character of field documentation, and the printed, bound, publication marked definitive results. Digital media blurs these distinctions by making trench side data indistinguishable from its final form. By drawing on examples from current archaeological publication schemes, this paper will show how new digital tools and techniques can highlight the potential for mobile computing in archaeology, but also demonstrate how these new methods will challenge and transform institutions that shape archaeological knowledge.


On a related note, please check out the recently announced Open Context & Carleton Prize for Archaeological Visualization. Shawn Graham, one of the prizes co-sponsors, posted a snazzy video introduction to the prize. And like any good prize, it has some money behind it!

More importantly (and selfishly!), my survey project on Cyprus, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeology Project, has data in Open Context that could be used for this prize. While we have been working to connect this data to our published monograph in preparation for a Digital Edition, we’d love to have someone approach the data from another perspective and for an innovative visualization of our data (especially in conjunction with other similar datasets in Open Context) to inform the analysis in our traditional paper book. 

Go check it out!


Greece and the Bakken

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading things on the current situation in Greece. Most of it is written by scholars. I blame Kostis Kourelis for this and Richard Rothaus. They introduced me to the fine work of Heath Cabot who has written on both the ongoing financial and refugee crisis in Greece. I’ve enjoyed surfing around in two of the three books that Panos Leventis reviewed in the Journal of Architectural Education.

I’ve found the treatment of graffiti in Greece in Remapping ‘Crisis’: A Guide to Athens intriguing and the discussion of the privatization of public space especially relevant in my community of Grand Forks and consonant with some my experiences in Bakken. While our experiences in western North Dakota have generally been positive, some of my colleagues were once stopped by private security on a public road as they photographed a flare at night. The incident de-escalated fairly quickly, and while the presence of private security in the Bakken is understandable, the confrontation on a public road did demonstrate the growing reach of private concerns to public land and concerns. Similar concerns appear in the open publication City-Scapes: Athens and Beyond. I particularly enjoyed the treatment of flows which embraced the movements of humans and infrastructure. This offers a more sophisticated and obvious  treatment of what I was trying to do with my tourist guide to the Bakken. Between roads, rail, and pipelines, the Bakken is defined by flows of oil, people, and trains.

Yannis Hamilakis interest in the refugee crisis and the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration has fueled not only a forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, but also conferences and panels both in Greece and abroad. While the significance of this work to the lives of the refugees remains unclear,  there is no doubt that the efforts by Hamilakis and colleagues are arming scholars and hopefully policy makers with a new set of both archaeology tools and data to address real world problems.

The quality and intensity of the academic conversations about the Greek refugee and financial crisis has been remarkable. The recent events surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (recently summarized in the New Yorker, but getting heavy local and national media coverage) demonstrate that extractive industries here in the North Dakota continue to impact the state even after the most recent boom has subsided. For example, anyone thinking about the recent boom and the current crisis could do worse than reading Sebastian Braun’s contribution to our Bakken Goes Boom or buying a copy of Trout, Broby, and Houston (eds.) Fracture. Braun reminds us that “All the booms and frontiers on the plains have one thing in common: water is the key resource.” While his article focused on the twin challenges of fracking and wastewater disposal, he is clearly aware that it’s not merely the consumption of water but also the risk of contamination that locates water in the same category as air when assessing the impact of extractive industries on a global scale. As a result, the DAPL protest can’t be just about local water, Native American rights, or even North Dakota politics – any more than the Greek financial or refugee crisis is about Europe or Greece. These situations are global concerns that cut across national boundaries and highlight a wide range of political, environment, and ultimately human failings. Hopefully, scholarly attention on these situations will continue to provide a useful – if modest – counterweight to corporate publicity machines, media hype, and political rhetoric. Whether the work of scholars actually matters, remains uncertain.

Teaching Tuesday: Some More (Maybe the Same) Thoughts on Student Resistance

Each year around this time my heart sinks a little. With the start of the school year, I am pushed into the role as someone who coaxes effort and enforces consequences among students. The ubiquitous memes appear mourning and mocking students’ reluctance to read and digest syllabi. And the annual season of “why don’t students read” articles appear each with a different take on the the perennial problem of convincing students to engage material outside of the classroom. As someone who has now taught (in some capacity) for nearly 20 years, I experience the same frustration when students aren’t prepared and struggle to find ways to motivate students.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve also come to hate the role as motivator, as cajoler, and as enforcer of standards. Part of what as sucked my enthusiasm for these roles is the growing recognition that campus culture, not just at UND, but everywhere has drifted increasingly toward audit culture, assessment practices, and skill building and away from instilling a passion for engaging ideas, confronting problems, and negotiating challenges. This isn’t to say that I’ve lost my excitement and interest in teaching, but I feel like the shift in the conversation on campus has pushed me to be complicit in a scheme to make the university into an increasingly corporatized education factory. In this new arrangement, I’m compelled to make students learn stuff as part overseer and part machine operator pressing reluctant minds into assessable and monetized commodities.

In this context, every time a student complains about the structure or expectations of a class, I feel less obligated to justify my pedagogical decisions and more of a vague glow of pride as the students resist mounting pressure of the modern educational establishment.

Why don’t students read?

Because learning is hard.  

But there’s more than that. Our expectations of student work is increasingly couched in terms of skill acquisition which then equate to success in the post-collegiate world. It makes sense then, as students struggle with the bleak reality that they will invariably confront as they are dragged toward adulthood and responsible (corporate? economic? political?) citizenship, that they resist. The simple act of refusing to read or of confounding our expectations should not be seen simply as an act of petulance or a sign of being overwhelmed by other things, but as an act of resistance to the dominant mode of contemporary educational culture. 

As faculty, we are obligated, then, not only to encourage students to read, but more importantly give them reason to read that goes beyond the language and culture of current university culture. Student resistance to reading is more than simply an act of resistance to overcome, but may well demonstrate a shared disenchantment with modern academia. In other words, students not reading might be a shared strategy that could be profitably redirected rather than subverted. When I think this way, I can almost convince myself that students are on our side as we struggle to resist the growing debasement of higher education. Almost.

(And it’s sure better than complaining!) 

Movement and Empire in a Connected Mediterranean

I’ve finally found time to check out C. Concannon and L. Mazurka, Across the Corrupting Sea: Post-Braudelian Approaches to the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean. (Ashgate 2016). David Pettegrew and I were lucky enough to have an article in this volume which is joined by some find contributions from archaeologists working around the Mediterranean basin.

I was particularly excited to read Jody Gordon’s article, “To Obey by Land and Sea: Cultural Identity in Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus,” in part because it deals with issues that I’ve played with from time to time, and in part because I knew it to be a summary of some points in his massive dissertation from the University of Cincinnati. Gordon argues that the place of Cyprus in the Mediterranean situated its relations with various imperial states during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and fundamental inflected Cypriot culture. Gordon’s arguments, at their best, are nuanced and recognize that some elements of foreign influence on the island – like the Hellenistic style tombs from Paphos – are more likely to represent intrusions, whereas others – like the adoption of Roman style mosaic floors depicting games – are more likely to be hybrid expressions negotiated over centuries of sustained contact between Cypriots and the wider Roman world. What was particularly clever in Gordon’s piece is that he recognized that the Cypriots used their island status to negotiate its relationship between the various imperial forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. While he could not detail every opportunity for interaction, Gordon’s analysis could be extended both earlier and later than his article. For example, it is clear that Ptolemaic control over Cyprus in the Early Hellenistic period was not simply an expression of Ptolemy’s military and political superiority in the region, but a product of the  wrangling of the late Iron Age kingdoms on Cyprus which allied themselves with various external political powers (and here is clearly echoes of work being done on the contemporary Roman world). Cypriots on a smaller scale presumably negotiated similar understandings through their engagement with Hellenistic and Roman material culture, adopting expressions that served local and regional purposed while ignoring others. The assemblages that these relationships to larger imperial state and networks produced on the island – mitigated by economic, political, religious, and even vague social and cultural factors (taste? memory? internal rivalries between communities?) – created the complex tableaux of sites that constitute our understanding of Cypriot archaeology and history. Like a Foucauldian text, the very idea of Cypriot sites only appears in the relationships with others within the larger discourse of the Hellenistic and Roman world. Good stuff here!

Concannon and Mazurka volume does offer a bit more sweeping views of the Mediterranean. There is a timeliness to their revisiting of Braudel massive Mediterranean and his successors – particular Horden and Purcell’s equally monumental The Corrupting Sea. The notion of the Mediterranean as a place of interaction and in Horden and Purcell’s words, connectivity, is as visible in the contemporary European Union (or in the increasingly transnational economic agents who navigate both the physical and fiscal Mediterranean(s) of the contemporary world) and the current refugee crisis. The movement of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to the coast of the Mediterranean reflects both the continuities that Braudel and others have described in the region as well as the breakdown of the national borders. In other words, the pre-national Mediterranean of Bruadel and Horden and Purcell does offer lessons and methods for understanding our increasingly post-national world present.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s a long weekend giving us an extra day to get some work done before we return to everyday life on Tuesday. Work a little extra to celebrate those whose labor gave us the chance to do more.

But also be sure the enjoy the start of college footballing season, Formula 1 at Monza, and the NASCARlers at the legendary “Lady in Black” (provided they can dodge the weather). 

As delightful fall weather creeps its way across the Northern Plains, I offer you some quick hits and varia for your weekend of work:

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Traveling North Dakota

Maybe it’s the waning days of summer or my plans to head back west to check out the Bakken (or maybe that I just finished revising my tourist guide to the Bakken), but for somer reason I’ve been thinking a good bit about travel in North Dakota.

The most famous guide to North Dakota likely remains the WPA funded, North Dakota: A Guide to the Northern Prairie State (Fargo 1938). 

When I was pulling together articles on Hemingway from North Dakota Quarterly, however, I stumbled upon two articles fueled my thinking about travel in North Dakota.

The first is by James E. Boyle, who was an economist at the University of North Dakota before making his name in agricultural economics at Cornell. He traveled the state for 30 days in the spring of 1916 and published some of his findings on that trip in the 1916 NDQ (which were reprinted in 1996). Among the more striking (and perhaps immediately relevant) observations is that on his trip he stayed mostly in farm houses, but during his trip they only stayed in three “American homes.” He described a landscape of almost evenly placed houses, barbed-wired fences, wheat fields, creameries, decent roads, and prosperity: “The farmer with brains and good health is more prosperous than his city brother of similar attainments.”

The second article is by Anne Rathke and it’s titled “The Image of North Dakota in Recent Travel Literature,” and it appeared in NDQ 56 (1988). For Rathke, recent means about 50 years and her article starts with John Gunther’s 1947 Inside the USA and tracks references to North Dakota through William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 Blue Highways. The image presented by Rathke is far from the kind of rustic, prairie idyll that one might expect. Instead, she shows how the North Dakota experience is complex and fueled the imagination of a generation of travelers who perhaps expected little more than an empty block on the map.