“Warning: This is not college.”

10 05 2013

Among the many things I’ve been doing since my semester ended is start another MOOC: Nutrition, Health and Lifestyle out of Vanderbilt. Why? Not only does it remind me of my dear, departed sabbatical, I teach food history. In that class we end up spending more time in the present than in any other course that I’ve ever taught and this MOOC is all about the food present.

I’ve almost completed the first week of six or seven so far and it has been very enjoyable. The production values are terrific. The superprofessor, Jamie Pope, is a good lecturer. There’s even a fair bit of history in it. If there’s a structural change between this course and the others I’ve taken, it’s the fact that the multiple choice questions come in the middle of the lecture rather than the end.

What hasn’t changed is the work level. As with the history MOOCs that I’ve taken or observed, there is no required reading in this class whatsoever. I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about nutrition as a discipline (which is one of the reasons I wanted to try this MOOC), but I have a hard time believing that there is a face-to-face nutrition course anywhere in the country that doesn’t have some kind of required reading. After all, reading is an important part of education of all kinds because the act of reading reinforces the learning process. I guess you could argue that the MOOC is nothing but a jazzed-up textbook, but how many other textbooks can you get a certificate for reading?

As I anticipated, Coursera/Vanderbilt is doing practically everything possible not to scare anybody off. Indeed, that’s why some of the lines from the syllabus border on pathetic. For example, after noting that the textbook is not required, the syllabus states that the video lectures provide the “core content for this course.” From what I can tell, the weekly assignments do not require writing (which seems understandable for nutrition), but you can still earn a “Statement of Accomplishment” without submitting any of them.

In one sense, this situation isn’t hurting anybody. 70,000 people are learning about nutrition, gaining knowledge that can improve every person’s life. This is certainly a good thing. In another sense though it may harm a lot a people. This class is on the Coursera Signature Track. While Coursera is clear that completing a class like this earns no college credit, they’re also clear that handing over $30-$100 per course to get your identity and performance verified does have value. Introducing this option, the company wrote on its blog:

We hope that offering verified certification for our courses will open up many new and valuable opportunities for students…

What are those opportunities? Perhaps they just mean professional development, but if you doubt that somebody somewhere is going to try to get college credit out of that certificate then you must have been born yesterday. The same thing goes if you doubt that some college somewhere will be delighted to award credit for that certificate – at a price. [Measured "competencies" anyone?] If enough people take MOOCs on the Signature Track, there may even be a movement to demand it.

If MOOCs could be limited to nerdy edu-tainment, I wouldn’t be writing this. If we could slap a label on every MOOC that says, “Warning: This is not college,” perhaps I would have no problem with them. I know superprofessors believe that they are doing a great public good by putting their lectures online and in a limited sense they are, but MOOCs do not exist in a vacuum. One person’s outreach is another person’s college substitute. That means that one superprofessor’s public service can also be an ill-informed administrator’s deadly weapon against the rest of us and against rigor in higher education in general. To think otherwise is the height of both naïveté and short-sightedness.





FrankenMOOCs and zombie profs.

20 02 2013

Aspiring food historian that I am, I’ve been reading Stephen Fried’s Appetite for America. It’s about Fred Harvey, who set up America’s first successful chain restaurant along the Santa Fe Railroad from Kansas to New Mexico during the last decades of the 19th Century.  When he passed on in 1901, his son Ford ran the business.  However, Ford never let on that Fred Harvey had actually died.  As the chain grew further, the railroad literature still said “Meals by Fred Harvey” because that was the name of the company, not because the original Fred Harvey actually had anything to do with the meals anymore.  Yet for decades people assumed that Fred Harvey was still alive.

When I first read this, it made me think of Betty Crocker (who would get letters from lesser-skilled housewives and sometimes their frustrated husbands) even though she was a fictional character.  Then I saw the news about the superprofessor from UC-Irvine leaving his MOOC in mid-run and thought of Fred Harvey again:

Mr. McKenzie’s microeconomics course, however, will continue—just without him. “The very able course managers have everything they need to post the remaining lectures, course assignments, and discussion problems, week by week, as scheduled,” the professor wrote. “However, I will not be involved.”

Now, it seems quite clear that this class had many problems, many of which were the fault of the superprofessor himself.  Nonetheless, there’s still two principles involved here that every professor who wants to receive a living wage really ought to defend.

The first is the idea that every course in a university curriculum needs to be updated regularly.  Obviously this guy will never be teaching a MOOC again, but the idea that your class can go on without you ought to strike fear in the hearts of professors everywhere, super- or otherwise.  While an Elvis impersonator can still play Elvis’s music after his death, the material that any professor teaches should reflect current scholarship.  As Gerry Canavan explained the other day in a post that is well worth reading in its entirety:

The pedagogical justification for MOOCs derives from a misunderstood belief in the surety and fixidity of current academic knowledge when, in fact, the entire point of the academy is discovery and dialogue. That is: the MOOC assumes we know what there is for us to know, and the only question now is how to package that knowledge in its best possible form for widest dissemination.

I think this point is particularly important for history classes since lay people tend to assume that since the past is past it therefore never changes.  Anybody who knows what the word “historiography” means knows that this is not true at all.  While Frederick Jackson Turner may have been the greatest historian of his era, having Zombie Frederick Jackson Turner teach today’s students would be a terrible disservice to everyone involved.

The other principle here concerns the right to control the fruits of your own work.  In the wake of this disaster, Derek Bruff (who’s facilitating the MOOCs coming soon to Vanderbilt) retweeted the link to something useful that he wrote last week:

Amy Collier, who supports online learning initiatives at Stanford, pointed out to me during the MROE workshop that an awful lot of people, including me, refer to these MOOCs as “Coursera courses” and not, say, “Georgia Tech courses” or “Vanderbilt courses.” I’ve used “Coursera course” as a shorthand to refer to the open online courses that Vanderbilt on the Coursera platform, but, thanks to Amy, I’m coming to see that such language is perhaps misleading.

I blogged earlier this month about the challenging design and production process required to launch one of these courses, a process undertaken largely by Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. Sure, Coursera assists with the course preparation and provides an online platform for the courses, but the heavy lifting is done by Vanderbilt. It’s also Vanderbilt that is responsible for setting the bar when it comes to the academic quality and rigor of these courses. We decide the content, design the assessments, and determine what merits a “Statement of Accomplishment.”

No disrespect to Derek (who is simply ruminating on the nature of his job), but in the old days nobody would ever refer to a course with a possessive other than an apostrophe “s” after that professor’s last name because nobody had any control over the content of that course but that professor.  Yes, in some ways this particular superprofessor is not the most admirable guy (although I certainly applaud his fondness for maintaining academic standards), but this could easily serve as an opening shot in an intellectual property war that faculty are likely to lose.

Regular online instructors would likely be the first targets of this effort, but they’ll come for the rest of us next.  When I sat in on a Moodle pitch once, their guy claimed that everything posted on Blackboard belongs to Blackboard.  I’ve never had that verified, but I can certainly imagine some campus claiming that everything posted on their LMS belongs to them.  Fred Harvey lived on because his family cultivated and benefited from that image. That’s not the same situation for faculty. After all, you’d have no control over whose brain they might insert into the carcass of your course.





Will college professors go the way of the milkman?

19 09 2011

I have been a Natalie Merchant fan since I first saw 10,000 Maniacs in college. In the old days, when I still went to concerts, I saw them more often than I did any other band (even after their shows were overran by teenage girls in peasant dresses). I pre-ordered the first Natalie Merchant album in seven years before it came out last year (rather than download the tracks) so that I could read the liner notes, and have had it in my car ever since. It’s two discs of the work of mostly obscure poets put to music, so there is actually a lot of interesting stuff to learn there.

This is my favorite track on the album:

The poet is Eleanor Farjeon, well-known in English places, but not in America. As Merchant notes, poetry aside, perhaps the most endearing thing she ever did was to turn down the title Dame of the British Empire with the line, “I do not wish to become different from the milkman.” Words to live by if I’ve ever encountered them.

They seem particularly useful to us academics, as we (myself included, of course) tend to greatly overrate our own usefulness. So many of us assume that whatever we’re interested in will be interesting to others, even if it isn’t. [See here for an important variation on this phenomenon.] I’ve also seen far too many examples of academics who assume that they’re somehow different than other working people just because they have a Ph.D.

We had time, and somehow we found the resources to study something for seven-odd years. This does not make us immune to the same rules of employment that blue collar workers face, like technological unemployment or the inevitable class struggle between employer and employee. This post by Tenured Radical about her computer troubles from over the weekend reminded me of Henry George’s complaint that industrial workers had been reduced to “mere feeders of machines.”

At the same time, there’s one way that I really do hope to be different from the milkman. Unlike milkmen, I hope my chosen profession continues to be practiced beyond a boutique existence long after my career has ended. If anyone has studied the demise of milkmen in America, I’d be interested in reading their work. If I had to guess though, I’d say that milkmen were probably victims of better refrigerated transport. It became cheaper to make milk on vast dairy farms and keep it cold for hundreds of miles than to squeeze it fresh and send it down the street. Yes, I know milk delivery is still a boutique operation in some places, but most people aren’t willing to pay that much more for a better product.

Will the college students of the future be willing to pay more for a better education? Will they even be able to pay more for a better education? Earlier this summer I wrote:

Seriously, the primary reason that I don’t go totally Luddite on this entire profession is that if given the opportunity, I don’t think the average bean counter is going to remake the university very well at all.

I still believe that, but now I’m afraid that the vast majority of both administrators and college students couldn’t care less. If I’m right, that should be enough to make you empathize with working people of all kinds. Especially milkmen.

Perhaps we can all double as psychiatrists, just like this milkman did.





A Thanksgiving treat.

25 11 2010

Via the Scout Report, it’s the menu collection at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas. While the wonderfully tacky Vegas menus are there, there are at least a few lovely old New York menus too.

Bon appetit, everyone.





Yet another food history book I’m going to have to buy.

14 10 2010

It’s described in “Toasting Fannie Farmer With an Epic Victorian Feast” on NPR.





Culinary context and the history of taste.

10 10 2010

This weekend, both Randall and Ralph have linked to Mark Smith’s essay in the Psychologist on the history of the senses. While it’s certainly worth a read, the piece has almost nothing on my favorite sense (at least in historical terms): taste. Luckily, my friends Gerard Fitzgerald and Gabriella Petrick covered that ground very well in a JAH Forum on the history of the senses (subs. req.) two years ago. Reading that piece again after reading Smith and having taught food history for a couple of semesters now, I see it’s both a good review of the literature and an interesting discussion of the obstacles in recreating how food used to taste. I also realized that I’ve become something of a taste history nihilist.

Here’s Fitzgerald and Petrick towards the end of their essay:

“Just as M. F. K. Fisher could invite readers to taste the perfect spring pea through her writing, historians can also convey a sense of past flavors. As historians, we can adopt some of the stylistic elements food writers employ as well as learn to read and interpret a variety of documents with our sense of taste. Cooking and eating these foods and then writing about their flavors can enhance our understanding of previous generations.”

It’s not as if I object to that advice. I’m just not sure it’s really going to work. First, there’s the problem of breeds. Assuming you can get an heirloom vegetable, there’s no guarantee that it will taste the same as did in its heyday. Then there’s the problem of terroir. Nothing is going to taste exactly alike unless its grown under the same conditions. Of course, everyone who’s bothered to think about the history of food knows this.

Smith assumes that every food historians knows this too:

[S]ensory histories, written by a variety of historians in multiple subfields, tend (quite rightly) to stress the preeminent importance of context for fathoming the role a particular sense played in shaping the meaning of the world for contemporaries. Most sensory historians do not assume that what smelled foul to a medieval English nose is the same thing as what modern English noses would deem stinky. Sensory historians correctly understand that the definition and meaning of what was sound and what was noise, what was stench-ridden and what was perfumed, what functioned as permissible forms of touch and what didn’t, and what certain foods tasted ‘like’ is and was highly contingent on who was doing the sniffing, tasting, touching and listening, the various technologies underwriting the meaning attached to sensory evaluations, and the particular political, economic and social contexts that shaped what the senses meant.

Certainly, unless we have a job at the Food Network, historians of food aren’t just interested in food for food’s sake. This subject should be interesting to historians of all stripes as a vehicle for getting at larger social and cultural questions. I can’t remember who said this first but it’s something of a truism now to see that human beings spend so much time acquiring, preparing and eating food that it’s really strange that historians haven’t spent more time on the subject until now.

But what about the effect of culinary context on the history of taste? Obviously, your second beer will not be as yummy as your first beer because you will be partially impaired. I think that applies to chicken too. I had already given up beef when I became a vegetarian. It was a family decision that came at the end of a vacation in Maine. We had all had chicken at nearly every lunch or dinner for a span of two weeks and it suddenly dawned on me that it had become tasteless and bland. What’s worse, I realized that it was probably tasteless and bland already! On the other hand, the proverbial immediate beneficiary of Herbert Hoover’s “chicken in every pot” policies would have had a totally different reaction to the same chicken. I don’t think I can ever unring that bell and ever go back to a time when chicken would be new to me again (but the fake chicken for vegetarians is definitely the best of all the faux meats currently on the American market).

The funniest thing about teaching the history of food is listening to students try to explain why they like some things and not others. They always try to rationalize it some way or another, but it increasingly strikes me that we like what we eat because we eat it regularly and we don’t like what we don’t like because we don’t. It didn’t take much training for me to like mushrooms after I became a vegetarian, even though I used to claim I hated them before. It’s the mozzarella and basil on those Italian sandwiches that got me over the hump. My daughter couldn’t stand shrimp until we started cooking it in batter for her. Now she’ll eat them plain gladly, and not just because we make her. On the other hand, I have a colleague from Maine who hates seafood. The explanation for that has to be too much of the stuff while growing up.

Context really is key for understanding the history of so many things. I’m simply afraid that when considering the history of taste, that context can’t really be reconstructed.





“Food for Fighters” (1943).

4 10 2010

Just heard about this one over the weekend:





Mr. Potato Head eat your heart out.

29 09 2010

I’ve been enjoying the National Archives’ new education site, Docs Teach, ever since AHA Today linked to it on Monday. However, it strikes me that the material from some of their periods are more useful than others. I liked the New Deal material, for example, but the 1870-1900 stuff was disappointing. It’s all way too heavy on Presidents for my taste.

Nevertheless, there are some wonderful pictures in this collection that strike me as being completely off the wall for your average secondary school teachers. I, on the other hand, will definitely find time to work in the one above. “Spud the Kaiser,” indeed.





In praise of spontaneity.

28 09 2010

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read it first at UD’s place on Sunday:

You have to pick, and it’s not an abstract choice. College costs a lot. I teach at BC, where a year’s tuition, fees, room, and board currently add up to $52,624. What are the students paying for? What can’t they get online for free? In my end of the academy, the humanities, it comes down to one thing, in essence: the other people in the room, teachers, and fellow students. We can debate whether that’s worth the price tag, and we can debate the relative value of lectures and seminars (I think the best mix in the humanities is some of the former and a lot of the latter), but you’re paying for the exclusive company of fellow thinkers who made it through the screening processes of admissions and faculty hiring. That’s it. You can get everything else online, and you can of course do the reading on your own.

Your money buys you the opportunity to pay attention to the other people on campus and to have them pay attention to you — close, sustained, active, fully engaged attention, undistracted by beeps, chimes, tweets, klaxons, ring tones, ads, explosions, continuous news feeds, or other mind-jamming noise. You qualify for admission, you pay your money, and you get four years — maybe the last four years you’ll ever get — to really attend to the ideas of other human beings, thousands of years’ worth of them, including the authors of the texts on the syllabus and the people in the room with you.

It’s a nice sentiment, and I certainly agree with it. I also agree with the overall cause that sparked these two paragraphs: banning laptops in the classroom. The distraction is not worth whatever benefits they might bring.

But read those two paragraphs again and consider another popular subject in the blogs I read: online education. You can have community online. Just look at Facebook. Last night I spent twenty minutes just reading the #Phillies Twitter feed as they won their fourth straight division title and I hadn’t felt so connected to my old home media market in years.* You can create a virtual scholarly community online. You might even be able to do it in real time. The problem is that such a community, assuming enough really smart people were willing to pay through the nose to get access to it rather than a real college – and that’s a big assumption – is that such a community would be utterly lacking in spontaneity.

My favorite teaching moments have all come when students stop talking through me and start talking directly to each other. Learning through engagement, I guess you’d call it. While I don’t condone violence, I remember one of those moments in my first class on slavery when one student threw an empty Coke can at another. Teaching the history of food produces tons of these moments as people get very animated about what they like to eat and are forced to think on their feet when I ask them why. None of these moments are ever going to happen if students are at home taking college classes in their pajamas. In fact, none of these moments are ever going to happen if you’re glued to your laptop in class either.

So what are you paying for when you pay for college? To me it’s the same dynamic as when you all go to the football game on Saturday afternoon. You pay so that everyone (including the professor if they’re lucky) can learn together at the same time. Turn college into a video game and rigor isn’t the only thing that disappears.

* The top tweet of the evening was, “Homer’s tribute to baseball salutes the Phillies and their fans! Any town that can boo Mike Schmidt and Santa Claus is okay by me.” How true. How true.





Did I mention that I’m a vegetarian?

11 09 2010

But the history of meat still fascinates me:








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