Random bullet points (more personal than usual).

8 04 2014

* I spent much of last week in New York City at the Roger Smith Food and Technology Conference. I shared my panel with a food scientist and the last artisan salami maker left in NYC. I can’t tell you how cool that experience was.

* I’ll be spending much of the rest of this week at the Organization of American Historians convention in Atlanta. I would never do two conferences in two weeks if it weren’t for 1) My willingness to spend my own resources on professional development and 2) My ability to offer online assignments via class blog posts in my absence. And you thought I was a Luddite.

* My next Chronicle Vitae piece is scheduled to appear about the time I get on my plane Wednesday. It’s called, “What the Heck Am I Supposed To Do With My LinkedIn Account?” Be sure to look for it on 4/9/14. [When I have the chance once it's out I'll link to it from here.]

* After I get back next week is when we here in Southern Colorado begin to mark the 100th anniversary of the infamous Ludlow Massacre. I’m actually Vice President of Governor Hickenlooper’s Ludlow Massacre Commission. If you’d like to learn more about the Ludlow Massacre, read some of the books mentioned here or buy a book offered here (which includes mine) or listen to this hourlong interview of me and Bob Butero of the United Mine Workers from a small Boulder radio station. Believe it or not, I’m actually the conservative in that discussion.

* As you might imagine, all of this has left me very busy. [And I'm only teaching three classes this semester! Imagine what happens when they make me teach four!] Therefore, posting here will likely be rather spotty for quite some time. So please Masters of the MOOC Universe, no important MOOC news when I’m otherwise engaged!





If I could just talk about ice and MOOCs at the same time…

1 04 2014

This story about the history of the ice industry on last night’s Marketplace (American Public Media, nationally broadcast on most NPR stations) is built around an interview with me.

“No Ice, No Las Vegas,” is a half-hour interview with me on Nevada Public Radio about ice, iceboxes and all the other good stuff you’ll find in Refrigeration Nation.

Of course, I haven’t seen any reviews yet, but the direct academic feedback I’ve gotten has been beyond my wildest expectations. I’m also getting the first hints that the book is actually selling (which is kind of amazing considering how expensive it is). While I would never ask anybody to drop $40 on it unless they were already so inclined, please consider asking your local library to order it.

Thanks.





Overexposure?

9 01 2014

This morning I did a half hour interview with Linda Pelaccio about Refrigeration Nation on the Internet radio show “A Taste of the Past.” You can listen to it here if you’re so inclined. I’m not sure I’m entirely coherent as I wanted to talk about seventeen things at once, but I’m told it went well. Discussing MOOCs is much easier because outrage keeps me focused.

I’m also interviewed on the same subject in a sidebar to this article about refrigeration at Modern Farmer. It’s quite an honor that the author of the main article is the great Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography fame.

Now back to my syllabi. If anybody wants to talk about MOOCs or refrigeration, it’s gonna have to wait ’til next week.





“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.





Just another boring old refrigeration history post.

12 12 2013

Over at the blog of the Historical Society.





In which I make an embarrassing admission.

10 11 2013

I bought a Kindle. A Kindle Paperwhite, to be specific.

Now you may not think that this is an embarrassing admission, but then you’re not the author of posts like “Kindles are for suckers,” “Kindles are still for suckers,” and much more along these lines. To summarize, I went from wanting a Kindle desperately, to hating them horribly, to buying one anyway.

The weird thing is that I still believe almost all the awful stuff I wrote about the Kindle. For example, you really do have to be incredibly careful of how much Amazon is charging you for a Kindle edition because they are perfectly willing still actually make you pay for the “privilege” of using the device they sold you. I haven’t found another David McCullough example again, but the experience is more common if you expand beyond the Amazon universe.

Just to pick one of the first books I got for my Kindle, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, is, as I write, $9.99 for Kindle. It’s $7.89 used. What about shipping? On Abebooks, it’s only $4.84. I actually paid $.99 for a Kindle version of Alice in Wonderland because I wanted to show it to my son and see how the illustrations looked. I could get that (like every other pre-1923 book) for free on Google Books without even breaking a sweat.

Another one of my old excuses for hating Kindles was that you can’t take notes on them. It turns out you can, but it’s so awkward! Just highlighting is practically impossible because of my fingers are so much fatter than the default print size. Yes, I can increase the print size, find the passage I was looking for, then switch back, but that’s such a huge hassle to just highlight. The beautiful thing about writing over my books, especially the books I use in class, is that all my discussion questions are right there on the first page and that usually saves me the need to go back and re-read an entire book every time I teach it. [My usual target is re-reading every third time I teach a book.] if putting notes into a Kindle is this hard, I shudder to think how hard it is to get them out.

And everything certainly still goes for my hatred of Kindle books’ lack of page numbers. Yes, I understand now that they have to do it that way in order to make the print size adjustable and I’ll be very grateful for that sometime in the future, but this makes it absolutely impossible to teach a book in class the way I usually do, calling out page numbers, asking to students to read passages and then asking questions about that passage. Indeed, if there is even the remotest chance that I might teach a book in a class someday, I couldn’t possibly buy it for Kindle first as that would be a huge waste of effort translating whatever Kindle notes I wrote into a paperback edition. So the Kindle is just going to be for fiction, journalism and all the stuff that’s not work-related. I might even lend it to the kid to see if it encourages him to read more.

On a related note, the inability to tell when a Kindle book is going to end is incredibly annoying. The first book I bought after Alice, Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, ended when the Kindle indicator said I had finished just 71%. Why? Because of all the footnotes. That wouldn’t have been a problem with a physical book.

So why did I buy a Kindle? In a word: clutter, or clutter avoidance to be exact. You have no idea how many books I have lying around at home that I read once years and years ago and have no intention of ever getting back to again. Sure, I enjoyed Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? and Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon and even The Da Vinci Code*, but now they’re just taking up space in my house. With the used book market having fallen through the floor, they’ll do nothing but collect dust and make it harder for me to move someday. At least the history books cluttering my office still serve a function, even if some of them are only useful very rarely.

There’s one more advantage to a Kindle that I didn’t anticipate. There is now a big market for short works in e-book only editions. One of these is Beyond the MOOC Hype by the Chronicle‘s Jeffrey R. Young, which I bought on Friday. It’s actually not nearly as bad as that Matt Damon quote you read last week suggests. Ordinarily, I’d share parts of it in subsequent posts, but I’m so sick to death of MOOC-blogging that I don’t feel like it. However, if somebody out there edits a publication that actually pays authors, I’d be delighted to review it for you. Just drop me a line. My e-mail is on the right. I could make it into a kind of MOOC status report or something.

Please understand though that when I quote the book, I can’t cite page numbers.

* I had to admit to at least one actually embarrassing thing with the title for this post being what is, didn’t I?





In which I resort to bad puns in order to sell books.

6 11 2013

It’s over at the blog of the Historical Society and it has to do with this guy:





“[A]n outstanding piece of scholarship.”

1 11 2013

The Innovation Book of the Week at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government is…well, you’ve probably guessed already. I’m so glad I spent the extra three extra years to make the scope of Refrigeration Nation global. Thank you again, Calestous.





Marketing!

23 10 2013

Stealing a page from Mark Cheathem, I’ll give away the last of my ten free copies of Refrigeration Nation to one lucky winner who retweets the above by Monday, 10/28. One of the earlier ones went to the culture reporter at our daily paper here in Pueblo, which led to this piece of strategic marketing.





MOOCs are in Joan Rivers, but they’re trying to get out.

22 10 2013

During the 1840s and early-1850s, American ice harvesters tried to sell their product in Great Britain for the first time. It was the technological marvel of its day – clear ice cut from lakes and ponds in New England shipped intact across the ocean. When you think about it, it’s still an impressive technological feat. Cut ice in regular blocks and pack it in a ship, the blocks separated with sawdust like mortar in a brick wall and 50-75% of the ice will still be intact when you take it to the other side of the world.

London had never seen anything like it. One supplier displayed a block in their window on the Strand. People would stop and gawk on it (not realizing that they would replace the block as it melted). That same supplier convinced Queen Victoria to endorse their product. Another brought over American bartenders to make “American” iced drinks. Unfortunately, the hype couldn’t sell enough of this novel product to keep the market afloat.

While natural ice was a sensation with the upper crust for a few seasons, the product never penetrated the middle or lower classes. Cost explains that result to some extent, but so does culture. The British just didn’t much care for iced drinks. For decades, the only place you could buy ice in England was at the fishmonger, where they used it to display their catch. It’s been seven years since the last time I was in England, but I remember it was next to impossible to get ice cubes there even then. Because I didn’t want to be an Ugly American i just stopped asking.

Why am I writing about ice cubes in what’s clearly a MOOC post? Well, there’s the fact that I’d much rather be promoting my book than going to this well yet again, but this piece really did make me think of the longstanding British distaste for ice cubes:

How do critics expect a MOOC to simply come in and present itself as a viable and legitimate replacement as a signal of student competence against some of our most revered and trusted institutions? Harvard, Yale, and Princeton opened their gates in 1636, 1701 and 1746. I daresay that it is asking a tad much of this nascent experiment to eclipse the prestige of these institutions after a meagre few years.

Harvard, Yale and Princeton, bless their hearts had paying students right from the beginning. MOOCs, alas for the techno-utopians among us, have no business model to speak of at all. American ice providers would have loved a few extra years in order to convince British people to consume cold drinks, but Mean Mr. Market didn’t give any to them. I think the same thing will be true for MOOCs, no matter how successful their experiment happens to be.

While I think we have enough evidence to pronounce MOOCs a pedagogical failure (if not a business one), the author of this piece has a much rosier view of education technology. If you’re stomach is strong enough to click this link, you’ll see that it’s response to Sarah Kendzior’s recent Aljazeera piece on MOOCs, “When MOOCs Profit, Who Pays?” Luckily for me, Sarah Kendzior is more than capable of taking care of herself so I have no need to violate my pledge not to rehash arguments from the “Year of the MOOC” that I’ve been over 1,000 times before in this space.

Nevertheless, there is something new and different here. The faith-based manner in which the author accepts arguments of the Masters of MOOC Creation is almost touching in its naiveté. That’s why a long excerpt is in order:

The very notion that MOOC providers are wedging income groups further and further apart is laughable after just a cursory read of the quixotic and lofty aims that their founders propagate. To say that MOOCs are an accomplice to the hardships suffered by students because of the tortured state of higher education is to fail to understand what one actually is and why the mode came into being.

Their founders talk of goals such as bringing the highest quality education to the remotest parts of the world, to offer students the same level and depth of instruction, irrespective of their financial or ethnic background. How can a concept so fundamentally egalitarian and open be accused of creating educational inequalities? MOOC providers can boast stories of their courses giving new leases on life to Syrians suffering the tolls of war and giving humanitarians new tools to inform their field work. Is this not the exact opposite of increasing inequality? And given that MOOC providers have not the ambition nor aspiration for their platforms replace the institutions of university, there is no immediately conceivable possibility of a two-tiered education system arising as a result of their existence.

This is pure faith-based education reform if I’ve ever seen it. The author sees the potential for helping suffering Syrians and therefore assumes that all of us must accept one and only version of the potential future so that those Syrians can get their MOOCs. If the people being helped can’t actually pay for their MOOCs, then American college students have a duty to propel this experiment forward.

If I see Elvis everywhere, does that mean we need to go to Graceland and dig up his body just to make sure he’s really dead? It reminds me of one of those charities that’s all smiles in their infomercials, but 95% of the donations go to the founder’s bank accounts. We’re helping because we say so. Period. End of story. Don’t follow the money or you’ll hurt the people we’re helping.

MOOCs, in short, have become all things to all people. For the naive techies of the world, they will end inequality. To investors in Udacity and Coursera, they will hopefully make enough to aggravate it. To superprofessors, they will bring quality learning to the masses. To the retired physics professors of the world who take every MOOC in sight, they’re more of an opportunity for entertainment that beats whatever is on television. All of this is a product of the fact that MOOC providers have absolutely no idea what their market even is. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have better luck bringing Elvis back from the dead than they will satisfying all these constituencies at once.








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