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.





Disruption disrupted.

17 06 2014

I never took a course in the history of technology. My dissertation (and very poorly read first book) were about labor relations in the American steel industry. While overdosing on industry trade journals, I quickly realized that how steelworkers labored depended upon how steel was made and that the best way to distinguish what I was writing from the many studies that had come before was to get the technological details right.

This proved to be a terrible strategy. While I’m quite sure that I did indeed get the technological details right, the people who read my manuscript never recognized this since they had all read or written books that got them wrong or never covered them at all. The worst comment I ever got (which, of course, I remember to this day) was “Rees knows nothing about the technology of the steel industry.” I begged to differ, but what could I do about it? Nothing.

I wrote Refrigeration Nation because I enjoyed reading old trade journals to get the details right and because I wanted to examine the technology of an industry that nobody else had written about. Surprisingly, when I picked my second book project that description included the refrigeration industry. Actually, refrigeration is not one technology, but many: ice harvesting equipment, large scale industrial refrigerating machines, electric household refrigerators and others. If you read the book (and I certainly hope you do), you’ll see I spill the most ink writing about the transitions between one technology and another.

These transitions can be painfully slow. Ice harvesting didn’t die until around World War I. The ice man still delivered machine-made ice door-to-door in New York City during the 1950s. Even today, you can still buy what is generally known as “artisan ice” for people who really want their drinks to be special. Perhaps this explains why I’ve always been so suspicious of Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” Everything I’ve ever studied that you’d expect to disappear in the blink of an eye when in competition with better technology always managed to hold on for decades.

By now, you’ve probably already read Jill Lepore’s absolutely devastating takedown of disruptive innovation in what I presume is this week’s New Yorker. [It appears rather late in my neck of Colorado. Thank goodness this one is outside the paywall!] If you still haven’t let’s just say that Lepore is unimpressed by the work of her Harvard colleague:

Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.

And remember, there’s plenty of excellent evidence for the pace of technological change in countless American industries. You’ve never read an Alfred Chandler takedown because Chandler actually consulted this stuff. Christensen apparently not so much.

Since I don’t have a team of fact checkers at my disposal, I’m just going to concentrate here on the industry Lepore covers that I know best: steel. Here’s Lepore:

In his discussion of the steel industry, in which he argues that established companies were disrupted by the technology of minimilling (melting down scrap metal to make cheaper, lower-quality sheet metal), Christensen writes that U.S. Steel, founded in 1901, lowered the cost of steel production from “nine labor-hours per ton of steel produced in 1980 to just under three hours per ton in 1991,” which he attributes to the company’s “ferociously attacking the size of its workforce, paring it from more than 93,000 in 1980 to fewer than 23,000 in 1991,” in order to point out that even this accomplishment could not stop the coming disruption. Christensen tends to ignore factors that don’t support his theory. Factors having effects on both production and profitability that Christensen does not mention are that, between 1986 and 1987, twenty-two thousand workers at U.S. Steel did not go to work, as part of a labor action, and that U.S. Steel’s workers are unionized and have been for generations, while minimill manufacturers, with their newer workforces, are generally non-union. Christensen’s logic here seems to be that the industry’s labor arrangements can have played no role in U.S. Steel’s struggles—and are not even worth mentioning—because U.S. Steel’s struggles must be a function of its having failed to build minimills. U.S. Steel’s struggles have been and remain grave, but its failure is by no means a matter of historical record. Today, the largest U.S. producer of steel is—U.S. Steel.

Two other factors that Lepore doesn’t mention (which makes me think that Christensen didn’t either) are environmental regulation and foreign competition – the second being the more important of those two to the overall fate of the industry. The success of minimills also required a huge decrease in the price of scrap steel. What these other factors suggest is that any hard and fast rule of technological change will inevitably fall victim to the unpredictability of people. My old advisor used to call this the social system of production, and practically the entire subfield of the history of technology is predicated on this notion rather than Christensen’s brand of technological determinism

For example, if I remember right, Chandler’s last book (I get the titles mixed up) is about the various quirks in the path of industrialization across international borders. In my work, the most important factor determining the speed at which one refrigerating technology transitions to another is its reception by consumers and amazingly enough lots of refrigeration consumers just hate “progress.” Just to namecheck a great book that I happen to be reading right now, in Seeing Underground, Eric Nystrom describes the effect of political factors – especially lawsuits – on the quality of mine maps. In Butte, Montana, at least, the more lawsuits there were the more precious metals they eventually found.

Of course, my interest in Christensen comes from his pronouncements about higher education. Lepore does very little with them in her article, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from applying the same logic that I just did here. There is no scientific law of the jungle that fates universities to go entirely online or die off. If people value direct human contact and the educational advantages it brings, they should be willing to pay – or force their governments to pay – for universities to teach in face-to-face settings. Like I wrote in Inside Higher Education a really long time ago now, all this talk about inevitability is just a way to shut down discussion so that the educational traits that we once valued will be abandoned more easily.

The great service that Lepore has performed is to metaphorically take the fight over those values to the source of the attacks against them. Like MacArthur at Inchon, she has landed behind enemy lines and will hopefully force the enemy to pull back and defend ideological territory that they thought they had already conquered. Those of us currently at risk of becoming victims of creative destruction can only hope she succeeds.





The MOOC/Online Education Industrial Complex.

14 05 2014

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address,” 1961.

The other night, Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles were picking apart a new Sebastian Thrun interview on Twitter. While such activities are indeed highly amusing, I’ve been busy writing about refrigerators these last few days so I figured I would just let it go. But then Audrey linked to the job description of a Udacity Course Manager. Here’s my favorite part:

“A Course Manager is a teacher, mentor, and technical reviewer in one. You should take pride in ensuring that your students receive the best possible learning experience by motivating and working with them 1-on-1, mentoring them as they develop their portfolio, reviewing course materials, and giving insightful feedback to the Course Development Team.”

“Where I come from,” I tweeted, “they call course managers “professors.” But when I went back and looked at the ad again I noticed that no specific content knowledge is required to be a Udacity course manager at all.

Does anybody else see a problem with this?

Udacity, Post-Pivot:

If you’ve been paying attention to MOOCs for some length of time, you undoubtedly remember the infamous Sebastian Thrun Fast Company interview in which he basically called all of his company’s courses crap. It even gave birth to its own hashtag, #thrunpivot. In this new interview, he doubles down on that proposition:

The MOOC that we created at Udacity was our first attempt to democratize education and we learned from it. Like everyone, we made mistakes. We learned we can drastically boost learning outcomes by adding a service layer around MOOCs. It has a huge impact on completion rates and learning outcomes. Many people in the industry would say, ‘We told you so.’

What, pray tell, is a “service layer?” Living breathing human beings who will help guide students through the corridors of knowledge:

At the very beginning you do a Google Hangout and someone from Udacity talks to you. It’s our internal fleet of mentors [who provide coaching through the class]. When we make a class, we have a very different model from a classic MOOC. The team trains mentors specifically for the one class.

I was so troubled by our [former] completion rates. When I called a MOOC a lousy product I wasn’t kidding. [With this new model] we have literally gotten a [course] completion rate of 60 percent.

It would be interesting to know what the difference is between a course manager and a mentor. I’m guessing the course manager serves as the mentors’ boss. Yet some of those course managers are actually part time. Either way, if “the team trains specifically for one class,” who teaches the team? Certainly it can’t be the superprofessor, right? They’re too busy preparing the lectures and otherwise serving humanity. Do they just watch the same videos that everybody else does before they get released to the class?

No matter what, this whole set up is most decidedly not automated education. It’s cheap. It’s online. But it’s not automated. People who need to be trained require money for their labor and the source of that money has to be the students. That’s why Thrun says:

If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.

Pardon me while I go vomit.

The New Profitable Non-Profit Model:

While it would be really interesting to contrast Thrun’s new model with a new Boston Globe article in which Clayton Christensen (and a co-author) restate his now very old ideas, I’d rather compare it to another article you may have seen, this one about the University of Southern New Hampshire because I think there’s very little daylight between this and the new Udacity. And Jesus, if this story doesn’t give the average college professor the chills, I don’t know what will:

Delilah Caldwell, a philosophy instructor at Southern New Hampshire University, may well represent the future of higher education’s teaching force.

As one of the first full-time faculty members at Southern New Hampshire’s online college, Ms. Caldwell taught 20 online courses last year: four at a time for five terms, each eight weeks long. The textbooks and syllabi were provided by the university; Ms. Caldwell’s job was to teach. She was told to grade and give feedback on all student work in 72 hours or less.

First of all, this:

Second of all, the 72 hours or less is my favorite part. Suppose you actually want to have a life AND write half-decent comments on your students’ papers. What do you do then? Stupid me, who’s actually going to be dumb enough to assign papers if they’re facing a 72 hour turnaround time on all student-submitted work?

Yes, the academic assembly line workers at the University of Southern New Hampshire get paid relatively well (compared to adjuncts), but I bet the course managers at Udacity do too. The problems here go well beyond that in both cases. No academic freedom. No research. Very little control over your own class. [In the case of MOOCs that goes for both the mentors and to some extent the superprofessor too.] These things aren’t just important to the faculty involved. They’re vitally important to the quality of the course. Happy, knowledgable teachers teach better than peons on an academic assembly line.

Technological enthusiasts may be asking me right now, “Where’s your study on this?” I don’t have one. Neither do the MOOC people. As a recent study I saw via George Siemens has suggested:

To date, there has been little evidence collected that would allow an assessment of whether MOOCs do indeed provide a cost-effective mechanism for producing desirable educational outcomes at scale.

Gee, you’d think somebody would actually bother to study that BEFORE they decided to disrupt higher education. So why do such courses exist then? Are faculty so desperate to be superprofessors that they’re willing to act now and ask questions later? Are students simply pining for them? What if disrupting higher education isn’t such a hot idea after all? I think the reason that both these online facsimiles of real college college courses exist is, to paraphrase Eisenhower, the MOOC/online education – administrative industrial complex.

“Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved”:

The beauty of the Military-Industrial Complex (if such a word is even appropriate for use with such an awful thing) was that all that defense spending offered the economic benefits of being on a permanent wartime footing, but only occasionally did anybody have to go out and kill anybody. After the Manhattan Project, all those incredibly expensive nuclear weapons were never used at all.

What made Eisenhower’s warning about the Military-Industrial Complex so powerful was that here was a guy who knew. The great regret of his presidency was that he hadn’t done enough to stop this reckless spending, and his warning was supposed to help prevent that spending from continuing too far into the future. But the forces that stood to gain the most from that spending, generals and defense contractors, thrust it upon a willing America anyway because it was in their interests, if not the interests of America at large.

I’m beginning to think that administrators and edtech providers of all stripes, MOOCs or otherwise, have an evil tacit bargain all their own. Move college online, the deal goes, not because it will do anything in particular for education, but because it will help backfill all the government funding you’ve been losing over the last few decades. As an added benefit, it will certainly help you cut labor costs as your formally highly-paid, influential teachers can be replaced by an online army of the under-employed, or worse yet, robots.

Meanwhile this revolution is being sold to students for reasons of cost and convenience. As an added benefit, administrators and their private sector clients can make it seem as if such courses will help make college more effective at solving the structural inequalities inherent in our modern economy than they really are. Here’s Christensen and co-author on precisely that point:

Education technology companies and alternative learning providers — not just MOOCs — are finding disruptive footholds by targeting these non-consumers. They note that graduates from even well regarded colleges are struggling to launch their careers, make it into the workforce, or transition between jobs. Innovators are, therefore, beginning to address this widening gap by identifying what employers need and building those skill sets into their curricula.

Why not just sell the college to Subway so that they can turn it into a sandwich university and just get it over with?

Yet if the MOOC you’re taking sucks, why would it make a difference if you’re learning the exact skills that employers want or not? After all, you wouldn’t be learning them particularly well. Even if the MOOC you’re taking didn’t suck, the fact that so many people can learn those skills at the same time will only drive down the wages that graduates would earn for having them. If those skills are best practiced online, our students would then be facing the same kind of job market that new Ph.D.s are, and that’s not good news for anybody.

In short, why would anybody pay to have “magic happen” if they’re never going to get a chance to make a decent living using the skills they learn? If there aren’t any journalists willing to ask Thrun that question, maybe his investors should.





Surprise refrigeration post!!!

10 04 2014

I’m here in Atlanta for the Organization of American Historians convention. Instead of attending panels, I spent about three hours in the library of the American Society of Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Engineers taking pictures of old refrigerator ads. Honestly, I’m not sure it was worth the pressure of driving in Atlanta (and that’s only because driving in Atlanta really is THAT bad), but as this was the first time I ever walked into a library or an archive with a camera and a tripod, I thought I’d share.

First, you’ll notice that most of these pictures aren’t that good. When you need them for text rather than pictures I guess this doesn’t matter, but since I wanted these for a potential refrigeration roadshow I was hoping for better. After a little while I ditched the tripod entirely just so that they all wouldn’t look like I was photographing them from the side (which I had to do while the camera was on the tripod). Second, the content of all these ads really is wonderful. I think there is something about refrigerators that leads their manufacturers to project society’s anxieties upon them. This is particularly true of gender.

As advertisements aren’t protected by copyright, let me do at least a little show and tell here, with pictures that are hopefully big enough for you to read the wonderful fine print. None of these were dated unless the magazine’s date was on the reverse:

My Time Is My Own

This is one of what I’ve come to call “Refrigerator as Liberation” ads. Yes, it’s for a whole kitchen, but the refrigerator is the biggest part. I think it’s interesting that the appliance is marketed directly at women. In earlier days when these things were more expensive, that wasn’t always the case.

DSC00801

This one reminds me of those old Listerine ads: “Suspect yourself first.” Selling refrigerators through anxiety is possible only because the controls on the appliances were so bad that they needed constant maintenance. Kelvinator may have been “fully automatic” but it still needed defrosting and cleaning. This is also, of course, another ad aimed at women. [Men, of course, don't get anxious about their kitchens in this era of American History.]

DSC00797

Here’s one of my earlier bad shots with the tripod. It’s for refrigerators in general rather than one brand in particular, but it beautifully illustrates the gender marketing of refrigerators in the early Thirties (which is when it came out). I also like it because the talking baby kind of creeps me out, like in those E-Trade commercials.

Sorry if you can’t read all the fine print in these, but thank goodness I can in iPhoto. Maybe I’ll have to pull out quotes for the slides in my traveling refrigerator roadshow. It will even include iceboxes!





“You never give me your money.”

25 03 2014

When is a business not a business? When it’s in the edtech business! How do I know? This quote from the new Coursera CEO, former Yale President Richard Levin talking to the Chronicle is typical of a whole genre of similar sentiments:

The company has disbursed some payments to its university partners from revenue generated by its Signature Track program, which offers “verified” certificates to MOOC students in exchange for fees. But so far, the returns for Coursera’s partners have been largely intangible.

Mr. Levin said he was not too worried about that. “Intangible returns are, in fact, the kinds of returns that we, at universities, are in the business to provide,” he told The Chronicle.

[Emphasis added]

Yet if you read all the business-oriented coverage of Levin’s hiring, you’d see them discuss very little else besides the possibility of Coursera’s tangible returns. Here’s Anya Kamenetz (of all people) hassling them because students never give them their money:

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a ”Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track. But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting. In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

But wait!!! I thought Coursera’s mission was to bring education to the people who couldn’t afford it? Remember all those geniuses in lesser-developed countries? That argument is for TED talks and the New York Times. Can you imagine if Coursera’s VCs complained that the company never gave them its money and Richard Levin told them that they should be satisfied with “intangible returns?” Since the Chronicle told us that he’s being compensated with an ownership stake in the company, I think that scenario is by definition impossible.

Then there’s the question of paying students in developed countries. Here’s Ray Schroeder in the WSJ talking about other potential revenue streams:

“Coursera has huge potential,” Mr. Schroeder said. “The roadblock has always been accreditation.”

He estimates that with accreditation the company could charge in the neighborhood of $300 for a course and still undercut the cost of most other accredited courses by several hundred or even several thousand dollars.

I hate to point out the obvious, but charge $300 a course and Coursera’s initial sign up numbers are going to plummet. Their MOOCs would also cease to be actual MOOCs. Take out the massive and take out the open and you’re left with online courses, or OCs. If they’re automated, they won’t be particularly good online courses either.

While I’ve been picking on the stupidity of the phrase “intangible returns,” I should also note how stupid it is to suggest that universities are simply in the business of providing them too. It’s the determination of the modern university administrator to run their institutions like businesses that have already made so many online courses unrelentingly awful. In other words, Levin isn’t just fibbing on behalf of his new company. He’s fibbing on behalf of his new company’s clients too.

When all is said and done then, ed tech businesses are in fact businesses. It’s just that edtech businesses are less honest about it than those in other industries.





“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.





“Have fun storming the castle!”

14 11 2013

Sebastian Thrun has given up on MOOCs???!!! Say it isn’t so. Actually, it isn’t. He’s just given up on disrupting higher education, where they have all these crazy ideas about most students actually learning stuff in the courses they take:

But for Thrun, who had been wrestling over who Udacity’s ideal students should be, the results were not a failure; they were clarifying. “We were initially torn between collaborating with universities and working outside the world of college,” Thrun tells me. The San Jose State pilot offered the answer. “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

So put your cauldrons of boiling oil away. Instead, Thrun is going to disrupt industrial education, where the standards aren’t quite so high for people actually learning anything when they go through job retraining:

Thrun, ever a master of academic branding, terms this sponsored-course model the Open Education Alliance and says it is both the future of Udacity and, more generally, college education. “At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” Thrun says, sounding more CEO than professor. “If you focus on the single question of who knows best what students need in the workforce, it’s the people already in the workforce. Why not give industry a voice?”

“Think it’ll work?”

“It would take a miracle.”





“I’m not a real professor. I just play one on the Internet.”

6 11 2013

In Frank Capra’s 1941 classic “Meet John Doe,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a newspaper reporter who’s about to get fired. For her final column, she makes up a letter by John Doe, a fictional unemployed person, threatening suicide on Christmas Eve. When the letter attracts intense public interest, Stanwyck and her editor hire a bum played by Gary Cooper to assume the role of John Doe. Cooper, playing John Doe, becomes famous enough to give radio speeches at $100 a pop, all penned by Stanwyck.

Joining Cooper in his odyssey is another bum played by Walter Brennan. At one point, in a fancy hotel suite, he unleashes one of the key speeches of the movie, the kind of speech that makes you wonder whether Frank Capra was actually a closet leftist:

“Then you get a hold of some doe and what happens? All those nice, sweet lovable people become heelots. A lot of heels! They begin creeping up on you, trying to sell you something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on you. And you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push ‘em away but you haven’t got a chance. They got you. First thing you know, you own things. The car, for instance. Now your life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and court rooms and lawyers and fines and a million and one other things. And what happens. You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You gotta have money to pay for all those things.”

When Cooper tries to go back to his free and happy life, his editor tracks him down and forces him to continue giving Stanwyck’s cheery speeches in support of his aspiring Huey Long-like political career. At the end of the movie, Cooper himself contemplates actually committing suicide.*

I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few superprofessors don’t feel the same way after reading this article in Slate. Commercial MOOC providers, being heelots of the first order, are already considering replacing their superprofessors with Hollywood actors:

“From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, who was until recently a computer-science professor at MIT. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem,” he added, referring to a concept that Agarwal covers in a MOOC he teaches on circuits and electronics. “I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal.”

Assuming Matt Damon is too expensive, the Lords of MOOC Creation can always replace their superprofessors with cheaper-but-more-telegenic lecturers, grad students or even adjuncts. Something like that is already happening, as the same Slate article describes:

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano.

Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? “That’s a Udacity decision,” said Feist. “They’ve discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with.”

[Emphasis added]

Commercial MOOC providers like Udacity are primarily interested in attracting eyeballs that they can eventually monetize. Unfortunately, education isn’t sexy unless it has a sexy spokesperson. If you don’t want to turn off students with all that nasty reading, why would you want to turn them off by having an old, unattractive person take over their computer screen for huge chunks of time?

While the “I’m not a real professor. I just play one on the Internet.” jokes practically write themselves, there’s still a serious point to be made here. Educational goals will inevitably fall by the wayside when heelots have cars to pay for and mortgages to service. More importantly, the resources that pay for their cars and mortgages could be going to students or, God forbid, professors. This includes adjunct professors who currently live lives comparable to Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in “Meet John Doe.”

Yet I still pity the poor superprofessor. While many of them may have wanted to be rock stars with followings like John Doe, what the heelots giveth, the heelots can taketh away. Those responsible for getting you groupies, can always turn the spotlight on someone else whether that person happens to be qualified to do your job or not. Indeed, one might argue that this is the natural outcome of separating content delivery from actual teaching. I simply expected that it would be the academic lumpenproletariate who would feel the effects of that decision first, long before the superprofessors did.

One might also argue that this is the natural outcome of introducing commercial values into higher education. I actually wouldn’t go that far. It’s more like the natural outcome of allowing commercial values to dominate higher education above all other things. While we can never go back to a non-existent free and happy time when professors were only in it for the sake of education, at least we can go back to a free and happy time before administrators and the people who want to sell them expensive edtech treated disruption like a positive good, no matter how many people it hurts in the process.

In other words, it’s not the MOOCs that are the problem here. It’s the heelots who are running them.

* As my memory of Frank Capra films other than “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far from perfect, I used both the IMDb and Wikipedia entries for “Meet John Doe” to help write this summary. The quote is my (probably bad) transcription of the video at top.





The now obligatory post about writing for free.

31 10 2013

Last summer, I got an e-mail from Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle. They had started organizing this new project called Chronicle Vitae and they wanted to know if I would be one of the contributors. While I was pleasantly surprised that the Chronicle was interested in featuring the writing of somebody with my politics, I didn’t exactly jump at the chance. You see, I know some people of my political persuasion who’ve had bad experiences writing regularly for the Chronicle. Besides that, I wanted to know exactly what I was committing to and what exactly I’d be getting in return.

Yes, I was rude enough to ask the Chronicle about money. I did this well before getting paid for writing became all the rage because I don’t really want to write for free anymore. Yet I do anyway. Does this make me a bad person? Am I putting professional journalists out of work? Am I contributing to a system of naked exploitation?

I agree with what Derek Thompson wrote at the Atlantic: “It’s complicated.” While I’m not sure this is at all original, here’s my explanation of how I sort it out in my own mind:

Perhaps the greatest thing about having tenure is that I can write what I want for whomever I want to now. I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to spend seven years on a dissertation, five years on revision and have the final product sell a whopping total of 400 copies worldwide. This is not writing for a living or even the pittance of a living. It’s writing for tenure, and there are plenty of worthy presses out there who are more than willing to help you achieve that end – even if you have to buy 25% of those 400 copies yourself so that the press can at least break even.

Honestly, I’m beginning to feel the same way about academic journals. I’ve done my fair share of articles in my time, but I’ve never gotten even one ounce of feedback or encouragement from anybody who has ever read them after publication. Perhaps that’s because none of my articles have been any good, but I can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that it’s actually because almost nobody has ever read them. I spent five years [FIVE YEARS!!!] going back and forth with Technology and Culture to get this article published. While I love the result dearly, I have no idea why I bothered anymore. And, of course, I never made a dime off of it. But then again I didn’t expect to either.

Blogging has the decided advantage of being a lot more fun than writing for purely academic audiences. When nobody read this blog, I told myself that I was doing it for therapy. Now that people do read this blog, I tell myself that I’m doing it for my twin causes: faculty rights and faculty prerogatives for faculty at all levels of employment. To turn down the chance to bring those causes to an audience of professors and graduate students of all kinds would have been idiocy on my part.

Besides, as Jeff explained it to me, I actually like the idea. Chronicle Vitae is kind of like the academic LinkedIn, except academics won’t be all confused about why they joined up in the first place. It’s free to access and there’s even a place where grad students and young scholars can sign up for mentoring. What’s not to like? Besides, since I’ll eventually get around to plugging my book there it’s not exactly “free” labor in the Gary Becker sense of that word.

My first post for Chronicle Vitae is up now. You can find links to my future contributions in this space or just join up yourself and follow me once you’ve registered. Either way, I hope to see you there.








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