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!


Hint, hint, hint.

16 07 2013

This evening, I’ve been updating my publications page for the first time in like three years. If you’re not thrilled with the idea of dropping $40 for a history of the American refrigeration industry in a global context, perhaps you’d consider sending this link to your friendly neighborhood university librarian and asking them to order it?

What if I don’t want to teach out of your e-textbook?

28 10 2011

For those of you joining this blog relatively recently, you should know that it has not always been devoted to the subject of educational technology. It was probably about six months ago that I was approached about teaching online, and I decided to take a good long look at what that would entail. While trying to figure out whether this kind of instruction was good for me, I began to wonder how this kind of instruction could be good for anybody, particularly students. That’s when I started sharing what I found out in this space since I figured most professors in a similar position to mine probably knew as little as I did about how online education actually works.

Since I have not actually taught online, I am at something of a disadvantage when describing the pitfalls of that experience. Nevertheless, you can learn a lot just by reading closely, and I’m lucky that I know a few people now who can help me make sure I’ve got my facts straight about this subject.

After reading this exchange between the representatives of two edtech companies, I started thinking about the process of assigning textbooks in online classes. Yes, universities can afford a lot of shiny toys if they can manage to hold classes without professors, but it seems that e-learning providers can still make a pretty penny if they can break into the textbook market too. Otherwise, edtech companies wouldn’t be fighting about it.

What if professors want to assign free e-books instead of Pearson’s content?, asks Pearson competitor Nixty. My question is what if professors don’t want to assign anyone’s e-books? What if professors don’t want to assign any textbook at all?

Never having taught an online class myself, I had to check with MfD to make sure that I understood the current state of textbooks in online education accurately. She basically described it for me this way: Some professors gobble up the one-size-fits-all packages that e-content providers offer because it makes their lives easier. Other professors use the LMS as a platform for discussion, and tend to choose their own texts. At the same time, a lot of institutions are moving towards fully online courses which would include textbooks, I suspect because of the efficiency of it all. That appears to be Pearson’s business model with OpenClass.

As I’ve explained before here, my department chairman once tried to get me fired because I didn’t want to assign the same textbook that he did. Therefore, I’m fairly ferocious about protecting that prerogative. But this is about more than just being able to decide what textbook you want to use. This about whether the books that I want to teach would be available at all in an online environment.

Some of us don’t teach out of survey textbooks anymore. I do fine building my own web pages and linking to my assigned reading. Others use WordPress. A pre-packaged online environment is a threat to that prerogative.

But what about upper-level history classes? They absolutely depend upon the depth and breadth of previous scholarship in order to inform students of specific knowledge that fits the subject of the course. I tend to switch most of my books every time I teach something above survey level. Would I be able to get all of them through OpenClass or any other LMS? Do most of the smaller university presses even offer e-books yet? My publisher is offering some current titles (like mine) that way, but not the backlist.

Even more fundamentally, are e-books always a good way to consume academic monographs? Would students even want to read David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage (a monster of a book my grad students are slogging through now) while sitting at their computer screens? It wouldn’t be very efficient to ship that tome to Afghanistan (which is where they told me many of the soldiers I would have been teaching would be stationed) if I were trying to teach students located there. Would I be pressured to teach something else?

It’s not just an academic freedom thing. Picking new books and documents each semester is a large part of what keeps my job interesting to me. I don’t want it to be standardized for efficiency’s sake because the inefficiency of it all is what makes it fun. Every day of every semester is different this way. You can’t say that if you’re working on an assembly line.

I don’t expect people who plan to make money off disrupting education to care about these concerns, but I do expect that other humanists would. What say you other humanists?

Samuel Bowles, Our New West, 1869.

23 09 2011

I picked this off the shelves of the Western Museum of Mining and Industry last night before I heard a talk by Philip Dray about his excellent history of American labor, There Is Power in a Union, newly out in paperback. I can’t wait to give it a closer look.

By the way, if you’re in Colorado, you can here me talk about another book I kind of like at the WMMI, which is just north of Colorado Springs, on November 3rd at 7PM.

Kindles are for suckers.

21 05 2011

I love Amazon.com. I really do. I remember when I lived in Walla Walla, Washington where the only book store was about the size of my apartment. Their long tail stopped me from being bored out of my head all year. Look inside the book? Great. Competition for iTunes? Great. The Kindle? Not so much.

I’ve been kind of ambivalent about the Kindle previously. As a devoted reader, I had the typical electronics lust for it that most people like me probably had when it first came out. Then I read this article by Nicholson Baker in the New Yorker, which made me wonder whether it was all worth the trouble. As time has passed, I have become actively hostile.

It’s not as if I hate all e-books. They’re good for research purposes, and I’ve sold a few myself but when the Kindle edition of my book came out, the publisher set the price at $27.95. They also raised the price of the hardback by $5.05. It’s the difference between the electronic and physical copy of the book that matters, I figured, not the cost of the book itself.

What sent me over the edge is when I saw that Amazon.com is charging more for the Kindle version of David McCullough’s new book than they are for the hardback (at least as of the moment that I’m writing this). This tells me that the pricing for Kindle editions has become totally untethered from economic reality, and that can’t be good for consumers. Certainly, it costs more to produce the physical book than it does to deliver the e-version. All the savings from an electronic edition of McCullough’s book are therefore flowing to Amazon rather than readers. Readers should demand better.

Instead, Amazon.com believes that their Kindle customers are willing to pay more for this fleeting edition than they are for the thing which is permanent. Indeed, since Amazon can delete books from your Kindle for a whole host of reasons, they’re fleeting even if you never get to the capacity of the machine. You’re just renting the right to read them. If you use your Kindle for almost everything you read, it will fill up eventually. What are you going to do with your extra books? Buy a new Kindle?

Books are an excellent technology that have served mankind for hundreds of years. Kindles, among other problems, seem to freeze up on a lot of people. They’re also going to be obsolete pretty soon so I don’t understand is why anyone would pay more for an electronic version of something that works better in the real world. Megan McCardle offers one explanation:

But I doubt that many of the kids starting school now will build up the same kind of personal reference system around print books, any more than most children of the 1920s bothered to learn how to hitch up a team properly. To them, print books will seem ponderous and slow–what we find serene and undistracting, they will find as annoying as making your own Jello out of calve’s feet and eggshells.

That’s it! Think of the children!!! Yet college students overwhelmingly prefer physical textbooks to electronic versions. Apparently, Florida is mandating that all textbooks in schools there be e-books by 2016. Are they doing that for the kids? Of course not. They’re doing that to save money. Those savings come from the difference between the price of the physical book and the price concession that the state can extract out of publishers. Amazon customers can do no such thing because they can’t demand bulk pricing. Amazon can pocket all the cost savings from the e-book versus the physical version.

Amazon should be giving their machines away for free. Instead, people pay for the privilege of renting books from them. Buy a Kindle and you’re just encouraging them to rip you off more. Yes, I know that a lot of people are encouraging them these days. We’ll see how they feel when their Kindles become dinosaurs. Physical books, on the other hand, will last longer than any particular operating system (as long as you don’t abuse them).

So don’t be a sucker, buy paper. Then you can really stick it to the man by loaning your book out for a while after you’ve finished reading it.

If you happen to be in Colorado…

18 04 2011

You might want to get involved in what I’m doing the next two days. Tomorrow is the next installment of the lecture series at the Colorado Historical Society, held at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 1370 Grant Street in Denver because of the renovation of their old building:

How did the firm blamed for the Ludlow Massacre try to prevent disaster from striking again? The Rockefeller Plan, a “company union” created by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was designed to calm labor relations at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company after the worst incident of labor violence in Colorado history. Dr. Jonathan Rees of Colorado State University at Pueblo explains both the successes and failures of this attempt to create industrial democracy over the course of its history between the two world wars. While this story takes place in southern Colorado, its lessons deal not just with the history of mining and steelmaking in this state, but also with how companies managed labor during the age of industrialization—and even today.

I do one lecture at 1PM and the other at 7PM. The other thing is this:

Everyone I know who’s seen it says the movie is awesome and you can see clips here. So I hope you’ll understand if this space is unchanged until Thursday.

That only took a year.

11 03 2011

As any reader of academic journals knows, the time between publication and the first reviews of someone’s book can seem like an eternity. It seems that the Journal of American History got one of my book up in a little more than a year.

It’s mostly a nice summary of the complicated argument with the few subjective assessments being positive. I’ll take that any day!

Staying power.

22 11 2010

You can now read my book on a device that I don’t own.

Amazon started selling a Kindle edition of Representation and Rebellion last week. My wife asked me if this was good news. The press thinks so. I said it certainly isn’t bad news, but I do feel strangely ambivalent about the whole thing.

This has nothing to do with money. I’ve been told that the electronic versions of academic books often do a land office business (at least by academic standards), and often significantly outsell hardbacks. I haven’t bothered to check my contract yet, but even if it turns out that I get less royalties from electronic copies I strongly suspect the difference will be more than made up for by the increase in volume. The fact that my work is getting read should be the important thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in print or pixels.

I think the thing that bugs me about this as an author is the question of permanence. Since I don’t own a Kindle, I’m not entirely sure how many books one of those things holds at one time. However, I know that number is finite. A book is something you leave behind for the long run, long after most people outside of your immediate family have forgotten that you ever existed. I’m not sure Kindles will have that kind of staying power, let alone the electronic edition of a book like mine.

Say what you will about paper, but it’s a format that hasn’t gone out of style for six hundred odd years. I suspect people will still be reading books somewhere six hundred years down the line. And if anyone is still interested in the Rockefeller Plan that far in the future, it’s not the Kindle edition that they will be reading.

Richard W. Corwin and eugenics.

1 10 2010

Since I don’t subscribe to our local paper, it’s taken me about a week to find the results of an interview I gave about a week and a half ago. If you ask me, my old pal Brian sounds a lot better than I do. That’s probably a result of being able to e-mail your comments in rather than talking for half an hour and having no idea what is going to get quoted.

Representation and Rebellion: The first review.

7 05 2010

You can read it here. My favorite part is:

One of his most compelling points is his contention that although the ERP provided tangible benefits for many relatively skilled, literate workers who were thoroughly “Americanized,” substantial numbers of workers failed to take advantage of the services outside of the workplace that the plan offered. Rockefeller’s managers, however sincere and well-intentioned they may have been, failed to understand that the vast majority of workers at CF&I were innately suspicious of any program that they did not control themselves. Workers wanted independent representation, not something that reminded them of the condescending paternalism in early Lowell or George Pullman’s more recent “ideal,” tightly controlled worker community on the outskirts of Chicago.

This gives me hope that I won’t be thrown out of the labor history sub-field because I wrote a few nice things about “company unions.” But then again, there are probably many more to come.

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