“Andy Warhol, silver screen. Can’t tell them apart at all.”

8 01 2014

Andy Warhol was a practical joker. I’m not sure anyone ever saw him laughing, but I like to think of his work as a giant parody of industrialization and mass production. Consider the famous paintings of all those Campbell’s soup cans. They’re different, but they all look the same. More importantly, Warhol has decided that this is art. It is, but only in the sense that Warhol wants you to find beauty in sameness and uniformity. There may be some there, but this kind of shock only works for a limited amount of time. If you don’t believe me, just try to watch his eight-hour movie of the top of the Empire State Building (and nothing else).

Do the same in the realm of education and the results will be deadly. Is a MOOC a class or the image of a class? Do MOOC purveyors understand the difference? Do administrators? Does the MOOC Messiah Squad even care?

I thought of this when I read Anne Corner’s comment from my first post on the MOOC session at AHA 2014:

I also particularly liked Ann Little’s comments about not being controversial. That, of course, is half the fun of history and explains why Coursera seems a little bland.

Being a little bland might not be a problem if you’re teaching math. After all, the process is the same wherever you are and whoever you happen to be. This is most decidedly not true with respect to history.

Perhaps I saw the great Tressie MC make this point about MOOCs somewhere at some point, but I know I haven’t made it before. That’s why I was so glad to hear Ann argue the difficulty of teaching controversial material in MOOCs because it reminded me of something. Education isn’t education if the “customer” is always right. Education is supposed to be challenging in every sense of the word. If you’re signed up for seven MOOCs and you have to decide which one you want to invest your time in, are you going to pick the one that makes you feel uncomfortable? Of course not. And where does that leave diversity requirements or distribution requirements or even foreign language requirements?

MOOCs that don’t bring in the eyeballs will have to cater to the lowest common denominator or end up on the dustbin of history. I’m not just talking about required reading or writing assignments here. I’m talking about the material covered in the course overall. As Ann Little implied during our session, if the students want nothing but Whiggish history, then Coursera has every incentive to pressure their superprofessors to give it to them.

So what’s a superprofessor to do? Problem #1 is to make sure that the superprofessor is even involved in the course in the first place after all their lectures have been taped. Assuming they are there, what incentives are they getting to be as challenging in every sense of that word? If success in MOOCs means completion or even engagement, then not much at all. Will they still be adored by their worldwide audience if the superprofessor make them feel uncomfortable? Somehow I doubt it.

Sometimes I get the feeling that superprofessors are like Andy Warhol in the way that they both understand fame. Unfortunately, unlike Andy, most superprofessors do not produce art and do not appear to be joking. No disrespect intended to the two I just shared a podium with. They’re both nothing if not humble in the face of their new teaching-induced celebrity, and I’m sure it’s that celebrity that helped us pack the session last week. But, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, perhaps the medium has become their message.

When you get a chance to watch the tape of our session, you’ll notice how happy I was when Jeremy Adelman walked into the room. When you meet somebody you’ve been watching on the screen for a really long time you want to like them, and are disappointed when you find out that you disagree with them on some issue that’s important to you. This is why I know longer want to investigate the politics of quarterbacks.* When you listen to Jeremy’s and my comments, you’ll see that his and my attitudes towards MOOCs aren’t all that far apart anymore. That’s why I like him now more than ever. But the relationship between students and they’re professors is supposed to be different from this.

One of the side trips I made during the AHA convention was to see Robert Brugger, my editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press. Now that it’s out, I wanted to thank him for putting me through hell during the editing process for Refrigeration Nation because the result is a much, much better book. I think I learned more about writing from him than I did from my dissertation advisor. There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but I had skin in the game (so to speak). He invested his time in me because I invested my time in what he (and their excellent outside reviewers) had to say.

Students will never get that treatment in the world where their professor is nothing but a presence on the silver screen. Students will never get that in the world where their education is stamped out of an assembly line, like so many soup cans or Brillo boxes. But you say that this nightmare scenario will never happen? Are you sure? Once you say that an industrialized higher education is acceptable for some people under some circumstances, it will be very hard to draw a line where MOOCs are not acceptable to anybody who can’t pay for the best that academia has to offer.

* I have this persistent horrible sinking feeling that Peyton Manning is not a Democrat. John Elway certainly isn’t.





“I want to be a machine.”

13 02 2013

 “The reason I’m painting this way is because I want to be a machine. Whatever I do, and do machine-like, is because it is what I want to do.”

- Andy Warhol.

If there’s a decent book about the connection between the counterculture of the 1960s and the emergence of Silicon Valley as a tech hub, I’d love to read it.  If you don’t believe the connection exists, just look at the life and career of Stewart Brand.  I saw Timothy Leary speak when I was in college, and he told us that computers had become more important to him than drugs.  I swear to God every third word out of his mouth was “interface.”  The rest of the evidence is probably a fascinating story.

While it’s hardly my field of specialty, I have an argument that I picked up someplace or another which I use to teach the Sixties in my survey class.  I describe that decade’s Left as being made up of two factions:  the political and the cultural.  Sure there’s overlap between the two factions, but the tensions between those two groups goes a long way to explaining why things didn’t turn out better in America.

I thought of that split again while I was reading the latest installment of the great Shirky-Bady MOOC debate.  Aaron writes:

Shirky’s position—and that of most MOOC-boosters—does not seem consistent or coherent to me. There is a pulsing drumbeat of desire for a world in which self-directed learners direct their own learning, in which young people volunteer to learn whatever it is that they are supposed to learn, and in which the pedagogical labor of directing, encouraging, structuring, and disciplining the learning process is totally unnecessary, and need not be paid for. It is a fantasy.

So was stopping the war by levitating the Pentagon, and both results just as likely.  Indeed, fantasy is fairly common in edtech circles.  Here’s a piece of a really interesting article in Dissent on this subject:

But most MOOC-boosters do not talk about privatization of public services or the insertion of competition and profit into the mainstream of higher education; instead, they consistently present MOOCs and the companies that offer them as a “democratizing” force that will, in MOOC enthusiast Nathan Harden’s words, allow us to educate “as many students as possible, as well as possible, as affordably as possible.”

Just like stopping the war, it’s really hard to argue with that goal…at least until it descends into self-parody.

Just look at the example of Andy Warhol, perhaps the member of the Sixties cultural Left who sold out the fastest.  I happen to love much of his work, especially his early paintings which can easily be read as parodies of the no-longer creeping corporatization of the Kennedy years.  However, by the time he set up his famous studio (called, not coincidentally, “The Factory”)  all he basically did was take drugs, shoot excruciatingly dull films and pay people to crank out prints for him.  It became easy for Andy to dream of becoming a machine because he for all intents and purposes had already become one early on.  Even that machine produced some really cool work, but it wasn’t exactly art in the classic sense of that word.

To me, saying that MOOCs represent the next step in higher education is like saying finger-painting represents the next step in the evolution of art.  Perhaps students teaching themselves can produce art that’s good enough to hang on a wall in a Holiday Inn somewhere, but higher education is capable of so much better than what machines can do.  Yet outside of Cathy Davidson, we never hear about how technology can make people better professors.  Instead, the MOOC rhetoric is all about how once all the big, mean authoritarian proffies of the world go the way of the dodo we can all reach Nirvana together.

I consider my part of the reality-based higher education community.  I know that the children of the cultural left mean well, but by asking us to become education machines they are playing right into the hands of the higher education industrial complex.  Unfortunately, too many of my colleagues in academia are ready to play along.

Perhaps it’s for idealistic reasons. Maybe it’s the money or perhaps it’s for the fame that being a superprofessor will bring.  Of course, Andy’s better-known quote is:

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Maybe everybody everywhere could have their own MOOCs!  I think Andy would have liked that, especially the later Andy who became a self-parody.  Since MOOCs jumped the shark sometime last year, 15 minutes of superprofessordom for all is probably just weeks away.  Maybe one of today’s early superprofessors can teach a MOOC about how to be a superprofessor in order to better prepare us all for the End of Times.





I’d like to illustrate this post with a painting…

3 02 2011

…but the question of rights to artists’ works makes me rather timid. Therefore, I’ll just point out that the NEH Twitter feed just informed me that today is Norman Rockwell’s birthday and that they have funded a digital catalog of Norman Rockwell’s work which looks absolutely amazing.

If you’re laughing at me right now for linking to someone whose work you equate with that guy whose name I can’t remember right now but whose work gets sold in malls, then think of it as folk art. The guy certainly had his finger on the pulse of America, and I can’t think of a better resource to help me illustrate my mid-20th century lectures.

Update: Now I remember, that painter’s name is Thomas Kinkade. It’s funny how memory works. As soon as I stopped thinking about it, the name just came to me. And Google was no help to me, I tried searching for “worst American painter ever” and only got results related to American Idol. Searching for “paintings sold in malls” didn’t work either.





There were many images of Rosie the Riveter.

30 12 2010

I don’t mean to dishonor the dead as I’m sure that Geraldine Hoff Doyle, the recently deceased model for the now-iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter was a very admirable person. Nevertheless, historian that I am, I feel compelled to point out that there were, in fact, hundreds of different images representing Rosie the Riveter circulating during World War II. My favorite is the Norman Rockwell above which was a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, and therefore was undoubtedly seen by many more people during the war than the one we remember today.

So why is the one that Doyle modeled for the best-known now? It’s not because it was widely displayed at that time. The original of that one is at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and here’s how they describe it:

Artist J. Howard Miller produced this work-incentive poster for the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. Though displayed only briefly in Westinghouse factories, the poster has become one of the most famous icons of World War II.

Now, notice the Washington Post‘s very deliberate phrasing in their obituary of Doyle:

For millions of Americans throughout the decades since World War II, the stunning brunette in the red and white polka-dot bandanna was Rosie the Riveter.

[Emphasis added]

My theory has always been that since Doyle’s Rosie is in the Smithsonian collection, the image could be duplicated by t-shirt makers, doll manufacturers, etc. without paying royalties. Rockwell’s, on the other hand, isn’t owned by the government so it hasn’t been distributed nearly as widely.





“I happen to have Mr. Stella right here…”

9 12 2010

This more than makes up for Steve Martin’s 92nd Street Y debacle.





Can you pass the Acid Test?

11 03 2010

It was this article that led me to find this site, which has lots of images of posters like this one:

This image is definitely going into my Sixties lecture because you can’t teach the Sixties well without mentioning drugs and you can’t discuss drugs without discussing the Acid Tests.

On a related note, I read a LOT of non-fiction and I really do believe that my favorite non-fiction book of all time is Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. About three years ago, I went to a Wolfe speech in Massachusetts and paid good money to get him to sign my program afterwords. In the moment I had to talk to him, I explained that I was a history professor and that I’d been teaching Acid Test for almost a decade, and my first question in discussion was always, “Does Wolfe like the Merry Pranksters or is he trying to make fun of them?” In answering that question, Wolfe explained that his book was journalism and that he just wrote down what he heard, read and saw.

Perhaps the Merry Pranksters indicted themselves, then.





1934: A New Deal for Artists.

10 12 2009

I’m in DC at the moment, so this afternoon I got to see the “1934: A New Deal for Artists” exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. If you can’t see the show yourself, you may want to see the Flickr group derived from it just to use the images for historical education purposes. When I write my masterpiece on industrialization, I imagine the above painting would make a great book cover.








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