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.





I am no longer anti-MOOC.

6 06 2014

You may have noticed my general failure to avoid discussing MOOCs lately. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Actually, that’s not an entirely accurate assessment. There’s my latest for Chronicle Vitae, which is entirely MOOC-free. And sometimes instead of writing exclusively about MOOCs these days, I find myself writing about things that are MOOC-ish (MOCs, POCs, XOCs, etc.) or, like that Academe article of mine, I write about MOOCs in a wider context of technological threats to faculty prerogatives.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this last subject is where the real battle for the future of higher education will occur. While Coursera might love to stuff MOOCs down our throats, administrators of ill will are much more likely to use a wide range of technological tools to change higher education for the worse by making most faculty irrelevant. After all, the vast majority of us are too busy or too old school to follow every little twist and turn in education technology. That’s why it should be easy to slip something by us.

Which is why I’m making this announcement: I am no longer anti-MOOC (and not just because I like DS106). Anti-MOOC is so 2013. I am now anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives.” Of course, that INCLUDES the vast majority of MOOCs, but really the threat we face is so much bigger than MOOCs and their ilk.

In order to spread the word about what’s going on, I’ve decided to get my act together and take it on the road. Yes, I’ve just started working up a presentation for interested faculty everywhere (and am teaching myself Keynote in order to do it) which I’m tentatively calling, “Educational Technology, Budgetary Priorities and Academic Freedom.” Anybody interested in booking me to present this analysis for their event need only contact me at the e-mail address here on the right.

Does this mean I’m selling out? The answer to that question is, “Sort of.” If you happen to have money to pay for my services, I will accept it. However, if you are an impoverished faculty group (and of course I know the vast majority of faculty groups are very impoverished), I’ll go anywhere and speak just for expenses, just like all the speakers I know through AAUP do all the time.

PS If you need a reference, contact the nice people at the Connecticut AAUP. I had more fun speaking there last year than I ever thought possible, and all they gave me was a personalized poster (which I will treasure for the rest of my life or until I get replaced by a robot, whichever comes first).





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.





Trying to sound reasonable.

3 03 2014

This is an interview with me from the MOOC Research Initiative conference in Arlington, TX last December for e-Literate TV:

Now if I can just get on “American Experience” my life will be complete.





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.





“How should historians respond to MOOCs?”: The movie!

8 01 2014

Watch for the dramatic entrance by Jeremy Adelman about three quarters of the way through the picture:

My notes are here and additional thoughts here.





Two days at the Library of Congress, studying baking powder.

31 12 2013

Tomorrow I’m off to Washington, D.C. to spend two days at the Library of Congress, studying baking powder. This is for my biography of Harvey W. Wiley, the first head of what would eventually be called the FDA. I’ve been writing the chapters one food at a time, and while I thought studying alum would lead me to adulterated white flour it turns out Wiley spent most of his time on alum arguing with the baking powder interests. Perhaps I’ll even figure out what baking powder does without having to watch an old episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats.”

Oh yeah, in the middle of those two days I’ll be at a convention full of historians talking about MOOCs with my old friend Historiann and my new friend (and former frequenter of the comments of this blog), Jeremy Adelman. I would post my paper here, but they tell me we’re all going to be in the teaching section of AHA Perspectives in February so you’ll have to wait ’til then to read it (a month later if you’re not a subscriber). I did, however, just give my permission for HNN to tape my session. If all the paperwork went through, I’ll link there in a new post when I see it up.

If you’re around, I might also run into you at a couple of receptions. I think I might leave the Manuscripts Reading Room early on Thursday to go to this one, which strikes me as an excellent idea. And hopefully somebody will tell me where the Wisconsin reception is this time around. Maybe the chair could tweet it this year…hint, hint? Or did Scott Walker outlaw discretionary spending altogether?








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