Another one bites the dust.

7 07 2014

Over the weekend, I finished the manuscript for Refrigerator:

RefrigeratorCover 2

OK, maybe “Another One Bites the Dust” is a little strong here. I have a complete draft now, but I still have to do some more tinkering myself (stuff along the lines of “Do I really need that many quotations?” The answer is always no.) before I turn the thing in to my extremely supportive editors at Bloomsbury a few weeks from now. Nevertheless, it really feels marvelous to have written something like an actual book in just two months. Here are the two secrets of that success: 1) The manuscript is only 25,000 words long, which is exactly the length the publisher wanted. And 2) I had most of the research done already. I think the only new research I did consisted of me going to Lowe’s and Sears and just looking around, picking up pamphlets as I went or reading refrigerator reviews on the Internet.*

The weird thing though is that, without meaning to, I seem to have stumbled into what is at least for me a brand new publishing strategy: More than one book from the same set of research. While some of what I already knew from Refrigeration Nation went into this new book, the most important reason I could write Refrigerator so quickly (and this derives from reason #2 above) is that I had huge chunks of refrigerator-related material already written. This is the stuff that ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor writing Refrigeration Nation, but it fit well into the kind of book that Bloomsbury wanted – not too serious, and definitely not academic. For example, most of the part on refrigerators and global warming that I originally wrote for Refrigeration Nation made no sense in an academic history, but fit this book perfectly.

Oddly enough, it looks like the next book I get done will be a book devoted entirely to the icebox for Johns Hopkins again. The idea here is to write a short undergraduate-level textbook to explain all the very complicated technologies that made the extremely simple technology of the icebox possible. On this subject, I literally have drawerfuls and databases full of material that never made it into Refrigeration Nation. That’s what thirteen years worth of research can do for you.

To top it all off, none other than my older brother the economics professor (and his co-author) invited me to collaborate on at least one math-laden study about the effects of the introduction mechanical refrigeration into American cities on public health. Besides the sheer irony of me producing anything that has math in it for an economics journal no less, it just seems like an interesting thing to do. As an added benefit, it would make our Dad very happy.

So why does all this matter to you? Well, if you’re not an historian, it might not matter at all. However, if you happen to be a member of my particular academic cult, I think there may be many good reasons not to wait ten years between books.  Here are three of them: 1) The money is hopefully way better this way. More books means more chances for royalties and speaking fees – and as someone in the same salary situation that Historiann describes here, that’s no small benefit. 2) Researching vertically – meaning one subject deeper rather than many subjects lightly – gives you a chance to correct your mistakes. I’m not confessing to mistakes in Refrigeration Nation…at least not yet, but there were omissions.  For example, I really wish I could have included the stuff I got about frozen foods for this books in the last one too. And 3) Since the powers that be at my school now say that I have to justify keeping three courses per semester every single, solitary year, publishing this way is actually the best way for me to keep more time to write.

I still have an interesting longterm publishing project: my Harvey Wiley biography. Maybe by the time I get back to it, I’ll figure out the perfect angle to get an agent and a trade book contract. Until that day comes, I’ll just keep plugging along.

* Did you know that you can buy a refrigerator at Amazon? They don’t ship it via UPS. Buy one and they’ll call you within three days to set up a drop off date and get one out to you direct from the manufacturer’s warehouse.





My object lesson.

12 05 2014

Since one of my editors just tweeted this picture, I think it’s safe to share it with you here:

RefrigeratorCover 2

Writing this short book is where most of my summer will be going. All I can say now, it’s kind of weird to spend so much time on something that is not exclusively a work of history. You should be able to judge the results for yourself sometime early next year.





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.








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