Movin’ out.

5 08 2014

THIS BLOG HAS MOVED HERE, a lovely site housed by the good folks at Reclaim Hosting, where I’ll be consolidating all my various academic and non-academic Internet activities. Please adjust your bookmarks, rss feeds or however you reach this blog accordingly. While all new posts will appear there, I have decided to keep all the old ones up here for convenience sake.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to seeing you at the new site soon.

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?

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?

Why I’m not blogging.

14 06 2013

Because I’m spending all my free time working on the page proofs and index for this:

Refrigeration Nation

And the fact that I don’t have the time to dig into this is absolutely killing me.

The MOOC monster will never be satisfied.

26 04 2013

“Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself.  Allow it to expand and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison.”

– David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 319.

There’s been something of an explosion in professor-as-student MOOC blogging lately. The first one I ever saw was Laura Gibbs writing about the Coursera Fantasy MOOC. My posts on Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC (scroll down a bit) benefited immeasurably from Jeremy Adelman’s active participation in the comments. Steven D. Krause is blogging the Duke Composition MOOC, which is an immeasurable service to people like me who don’t see how a composition MOOC is even possible. There’s even an online site now with nothing but MOOC news and reviews (called, fittingly, MOOC News and Reviews).

What all these efforts have in common is a desire to explain the mechanics of how MOOCs work, and to make earnest suggestions for their improvement or improved use on campus.  Krause, for instance, suggests this scenario:

“What if a student could put together a portfolio from one of these MOOCs and use that body of work to place it into a particular level of first-year writing or out of the requirement entirely?  I don’t see how Coursera makes a ton of money from that, but it at least is a use for Coursera.”

Aye, there’s the rub.  While this does indeed seem like a reasonable use for a composition MOOC, Coursera and its ilk will never be satisfied with such a small, comparatively non-renumerative market.  After all, the company has investors to please.  That’s why the MOOC monster will never be satisfied until it takes over all of academia.

You can see more than a tacit acknowledgement of this in the rhetoric of people who urge faculty to dip there toes into online waters before the sharks take over the entire ocean.  Pat Lockley, writing in Hybrid Pedagogy, compares educational technology to the development of the machine gun.  “If you’re willing to hold the revolver,” he argues, “then you must be willing to hold the machine gun.”  [Having just made it through David Graeber’s amazing book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, all this talk about economics and guns seems particularly apt.]   “To do nothing,” Lockley suggests, “is to let…others have dominion over your pedagogy.”

Well…sort of.  I agree, in the sense that if faculty keep their heads in the sands and keep teaching the way they’r professors taught, they’ll likely be overwhelmed by technological developments that will ruin the economic viability of college teaching of all but the most super of super professors.  I also agree that if you use technology, it can significantly improve the teaching of any subject.  However, to conclude from this analogy that MOOCs are higher education’s one inevitable future is a mistake of historic proportions.  “The real story behind MOOCs,” explains Tarak Barkawi at Al Jazeera English:

“may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smile-faced banner of “open access” and assisted in some cases by their “superstar,” camera-ready professors.”

In other words, bring in the machine guns and we all may just end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

Longtime readers know that when it comes to the war against MOOCs, I am hardly a pacifist.  Of all those MOOC narratives I listed in the first paragraph to this post, I think mine is the closest to being unremittingly hostile.  Yes, I think MOOCs are good for teaching a limited number of things in a limited number of ways, but I believe that no matter how many tweaks you put on them they will never be ready for prime time.  In other words, they can never be allowed to replace real college courses.  Every student deserves access to a professor, both for personal and pedagogical reasons. To abandon that principle, particularly out of naked self-interest, is simply a recipe for disaster.

That’s why we have to keep on MOOC providers to do the kind of things that are good for education, but not necessarily good for their bottom lines because they certainly aren’t doing those things now.  When Laura Gibbs examined the Coursera Science Fiction and Fantasy MOOC after taking it, she found that it hadn’t really changed at all. The moment when I got closest to trolling Jeremy Adelman rather than critiquing his MOOC occurred when he explained to the class that he was only going to reshoot a few of his lectures again because despite the fact that you couldn’t possibly find a more dedicated teacher in this world, he still expected his MOOC to run itself.

When you think about it though, this attitude makes sense.  Coursera is a business. Businesses are in the business of making money.  Reshooting lectures or redesigning courses takes time, money or both.  Since Coursera has a virtual monopoly on humanities MOOCs, there is no competition nipping at their heels.  Their staff, therefore, can devote the majority of their time to expanding their offerings rather than doing quality control.

There’s a part in Debt where David Graeber notes that in order to complain to a king about their policies you have to speak the king’s language.  In this case, the language of all our rulers is money.  Pleas about the need to improve the quality of education might as well be Greek to them.  We can make all sorts of reasonable suggestions about how the quality of MOOCs can be improved, but the private companies that provide those services have no incentive to take them seriously as long as we treat their coming as inevitable, the only outcome of higher education reform even worth considering.

This poses a potential problem.  Inviting an insatiable, giant, man-eating, tennis-playing blancmange to your party is stupid enough, but if you have to be that dumb then at least lay down some ground rules.  For example, don’t let the monster eat you out of house and home. Don’t let them eat any of your other party guests either.  If the monster can’t abide by those simple ground rules, then somebody is going to have to keep a weapon around in order to slay the beast because I can pretty much assure you that it will not go quietly.

“My MOOC is a pale imitation of the class I teach on campus.”

28 03 2013

I’d like to thank all my friends on social media for making the last diatribe I wrote the single best-read post in the history of this blog (by far). The fact that I used the word “assholes” three times in it would make my Mom particularly proud.

For any of you who might be sticking around this blog for more posts like it, you should understand that I’ve been writing about online education in general and MOOCs in particular for many months now. So if you want to know why I think MOOCs are inferior to regular college history classes, check out the posts in these categories.

You should also understand the intended audience for this blog. It’s one professor (namely me) writing to other professors, grad students and related higher ed professionals. That doesn’t mean others aren’t welcome, it’s just that I don’t expect you all to share all of our concerns.

Perhaps the weirdest thing for me about that Jay Gould post was the way it quickly crossed over into this wider realm. From what I can tell, this was largely due to Erik Loomis. He managed to attract the attention of Matthew Yglesias at Slate, who wrote a post there that I actually mostly agree with:

It’s worth noting that lower quality is often a better value-proposition and that’s exactly why there’s a profit opportunity. Ikea, for example, has not risen to power by manufacturing better furniture than other companies. If anything it’s worse. Deliberately worse. The profit opportunity is that it turns out that cheap Nordic modern furniture is something a lot of people want. It turned out there was a big market for “somewhat worse but much cheaper” furniture. Lots of people listen to music, but very few people choose to invest in the highest-end products. Things like “it’s cheap” and “it’s convenient” drive people to listen to a lot of MP3s over earbud headphones.

I constantly go back and forth with respect to MOOCs on the question of whether students will laugh at the idea of an online, no-direct-contact-with-the-professor higher education or whether university administrators will successfuly force them to accept that scenario because it will be the only higher education available to most people. Where I differ with Yglesias is over the question of whether higher ed on the cheap is a good thing. I’ve covered this elsewhere, but the quick version of my response would be that educating the entire world is of no use to anyone but university administrators if the economy has no place to employ the recipients of all those online degrees.

What’s most refreshing about that Yglesias post to me is how he freely admits that a MOOC education is an inferior good. Getting back to my original subject, did you ever notice that you never hear anything like this from superprofessors? Just once, I want to hear a superprofessor say (or write):

“My MOOC is a pale imitation of the class I teach on campus.”


“The fact that I have a 90% drop out rate in my MOOC partially reflects the fact that many of my students find me boring.”

Why don’t you hear/read obvious statements like these? Ego, again.

While recent news has made me sorely tempted to call for a shunning campaign against all superprofessors, instead I want to reiterate my call for a campaign of moral suasion. Adopt a superprofessor today! And while you’re explaining to them how their choices might affect your future employment prospects, you might subtly hint that destroying the market for other people’s labor by distributing an inferior product could actually hurt their academic reputations in the long run rather than make them more cool.

World History MOOC Report 16: In which I try to sum the whole thing up.

21 12 2012

Well, I just hit submit on my last essay so even though I have a little bit of peer grading left to do, my MOOC experience is basically over. When I started this thing I wrote:

I could definitely stand to learn more specific factual knowledge from outside my country of specialty.

Although it turns out I knew a lot more about World History than I thought I did, there’s no question that I met that goal. Of course, I would have learned more had I read the textbook and took notes on the video lectures, but I’ll bet you anything I would have quit the whole thing in frustration if I had gone in whole hog. In that sense, maybe having different levels of MOOC participation is a good thing.

I still wonder though whether the course might have been designed better to draw slackers like me in further. When I teach my survey course, I spend the entire first lecture going through the syllabus and explaining the differences between history in college and the kind of history classes that students likely had in high school. Perhaps Jeremy does something similar on campus, but for this MOOC he certainly hit the ground running. Everything technical and bureaucratic had to be absorbed passively on the web site or through e-mail as the lectures (apart from the goofing around with Dan or Valeria) were all business – history business, that is, rather than the business of the course. I realize that the MOOC machine is supposed to be canned, but I don’t see why some of it can’t cover the course details that will change from semester to semester. After all, as numerous people have pointed out in the comments to earlier posts in this series, the history certainly does.

With respect to that history, what surprised me most is the way that I perked up more often when Jeremy was lecturing on material that I already knew rather than the stuff I knew nothing about. It’s not that I was determined to find errors in the lectures (I think I remember just one through the whole course).* I think it’s because that’s the material for which I already had the knowledge to put what I was learning into context. I knew there were lots of local revolutions during World War I, for example, but considering them altogether helps me understand that conflict better outside the limited American context.

Jeremy assumed a lot of prior knowledge for the students in his class. I’m sure that works for Princeton students. I had a lot of it (but by no means all that I needed). I have to wonder though if most of the 92,000 people in the course had what they needed to make sense of everything. And you have to remember, a lot of those lectures went over the “normal” three hours per week that you’d get in an on campus course. We were being inundated. For my peculiar purposes that was a good thing, but I doubt that was true for everybody.

If a history MOOC is really going to simulate a college class, it has to somehow teach writing and critical thinking. While I would quibble with a few of Jeremy’s administrative decisions with respect to the peer grading assignments (for example, I think the footnote/bibliography thing just confuses matters), I really admire his efforts to actually duplicate the Princeton in-course experience. I think the problem is that peer-grading is basically doomed from the start almost by definition.

I don’t want to get too much into this as I have an essay written up on this subject that I’m currently trying to place. The short version of the critique are two points that I think I’ve made in earlier installments of this series: 1) There simply aren’t enough incentives to make students care about their grading duties. [The last essay I turned in got a perfect score. Unfortunately, I was the only person who had bothered to grade it.] And 2) Even if they do care, there’s no reason to think that they can grade anywhere near as well as a trained professional. Maybe you can teach the world a lot of facts by showing them videos of the best professors of the world, but if you can’t teach them how to “do” history, then MOOCs will never be able to replace the in-class experience unless the powers that be no longer care whether students get access to that experience or not.

Alright, that’s it for me and MOOCs for a good long while. I’m going on a MOOC holiday. Unfollow the blog if you’re only here for the MOOC bashing as I think I’m going to start back after Christmas with a whole new topic. No, it won’t be all culinary history but there’ll definitely be a lot more history here than there’s been lately. I suspect I’ll even still cover some educational technology from time to time, but MOOCs are starting to bore me to tears.

Merry Christmas, everybody. Here’s hoping that 2013 turns out to be the year of something with a better acronym.

* It’s that bra-burning myth, Jeremy. The 1968 Miss America protestors actually dumped ladies undergarments and other “instruments of women’s oppression” into a “Freedom Trash Can.”

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