“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.


“[T]he machine of growth must never stop.”

28 01 2013

“Firms committed to growth exist in a treadmill universe; the machine of growth must never stop.”

– Glenn Porter, from the Introduction to David A. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932:  The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States.  Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, xvi.

My graduate class this semester is on industrialization.  Technically, it’s supposed to cover 1877-1945, but I slipped in my favorite book of all time, David Hounshell’s From the American System to Mass Production just because I could.  Now I’m not suggesting that it will be your favorite book of all time if you read it too.  My graduate class didn’t like it much, at least before I started teaching it.  What makes it insanely great to teach, however, is explaining exactly why everyone should like it anyways.

Hounshell’s book offers an entirely different version of the 1800s than just about any other historian has ever written.  While one famous book on industrialization calls it a “term of magic” that “means everything and nothing,” Hounshell gets down in the weeds and explains exactly how factories operated.  He begins by describing the famous Armory System (a more accurate term than the “American System of Manufactures”) then follows it through industries of all kinds:  clock-making, sewing machine manufacture, furniture-making, reaper production, bicycle-making and, of course, the production of automobiles.  While the details can be off-putting to people who aren’t technically inclined [“Doesn’t this guy have any friends?,” one of my students asked about Hounshell last week.], the best thing about the book is how you can follow concepts like interchangeable parts or even particular kinds of machine tools from one industry to another and beyond.

Now I’ve read this book ten times if I’ve read it once, but it is so rich is that it feels new every time I read it because I’m never exactly the same person each time I pick it up.  So based upon what I’ve been writing about in this space lately, this 1854 quote (p. 15) from the English investigator Joseph Whitworth certainly still rings true:

“[Americans] call in the aid of machinery in almost every department of industry.  Wherever it can be introduced as a substitute for manual labor, it is universally and willingly resorted to.”

The question this raises is not, “Can you use machinery to automate education?”  Of course you can.  The question is whether you should automate education, thereby making mass production possible.  Now I’ve argued that point here on pedagogical grounds ’til the cows came home already, but since Hounshell’s book is written mostly from the manufacturer’s point of view, I want to discuss this question as a business decision.

Henry Ford was an anti-Semitic, anti-union creep.  He was also an industrial visionary. However, as Hounshell describes at the end of the book, the vision of mass production didn’t last very long.  Model “T” production peaked in 1923.  Five years later he had to shut down his factory to update his product since General Motors was eating his lunch. Sure, the assembly line spread to countless industries, but being the first mover was not enough for Ford to keep raking in money.  At first everyone just wanted a car.  Then they wanted their car to be special.

So how does this principle translate to other industries?  Hounshell quotes Lewis Mumford (p. 315) on this subject:

“When. . . mass-methods are applied to relatively durable goods like furniture or houses there is a great danger that once the original market is supplied, replacements will not have to be made with sufficient frequency to keep the original plant running.”

Is education forever too?  You can always get more, but would you be willing to pay for it?  I think MOOCs are like cars in the sense that everyone in the world would probably like to drive, but the question then becomes whether there are any roads built where they live.

Let’s move from the world of metaphor to the real world now.  This is from an NYT story about China from a few days ago:

“There is a structural mismatch — on the one hand, the factories cannot find skilled labor, and, on the other hand, the universities produce students who do not want the jobs available,” said Ye Zhihong, a deputy secretary general of China’s Education Ministry.

China’s swift expansion in education over the last decade, including a quadrupling of the number of college graduates each year, has created millions of engineers and scientists. The best can have their pick of jobs at Chinese companies that are aiming to become even more competitive globally.

In other words, without structural changes in a depressed economy an education can only take you so far.  Then there’s this lovesong to MOOCs from the robot that’s phoning in columns under the name “Tom Friedman:”

For relatively little money, the U.S, could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

And where are those Egyptian villagers going to work when they’re done with their online degrees?  Maybe they can give the folks at Your Man in India a run for their money.

The reason American universities are so big on MOOCs is that they see a potential revenue source that will compensate for the huge decline in revenue from state appropriations, the decline of the American Middle Class or usually both at the same time. As Mark Cuban (of all people) recently noted, they’re addicted to growth to keep their bloated budgets bloated. Anything they might be doing for Egyptian villagers in service of that goal is purely by accident. Like Henry Ford, when the rubber meets the road, they’re trying to solve a business problem rather than a societal one.

World History MOOC Report 12: In which I am in a state of confusion.

14 11 2012

I am probably the luckiest MOOC slacker in the entire world. I looked at writing assignment 4 a couple of days ago. Two of the three questions made me scratch my head and go, “When did we ever even cover that subject?” The other one was about the Industrial Revolution. I actually know something about the Industrial Revolution. I wrote my 750 word essay in half an hour and submitted it about two weeks early.

This doesn’t mean that I have put nothing Jeremy has taught me to use. I actually opened up a new tab during the last industrialization lecture and wrote down the following points in Evernote for future use:

Organic power switches to inorganic power.
Instead of locating plant near energy source, the energy can be moved to the plant.
Use that Peter Breughel peasant Image to illustrate the pre-industrial norm?

I also had an earlier note about railroads as being the result of engines getting small enough that they could became mobile. Jeremy, I promise that if M.E. Sharpe does give me the contract to write that early-nineteenth century industrialization prequel that I wrote a proposal for a few weeks ago, you will be prominently featured in the acknowledgements because this MOOC has really helped. I find it interesting that the stuff I remember best is about the material I knew the most about going in rather than the least. In terms of personal practicality then this MOOC stuff has been a remarkable success.

However, Jeremy’s platform really isn’t serving the cause of global education very well at all. I’ve already complained about the old method of lecturing not fitting the new MOOC delivery system. As I’m writing about the assignments, I want to elaborate on how much I miss having a syllabus to fall back upon.

The class does have an announcements page. When Hurricane Sandy led Jeremy and folks to add a few days to the last assignment, that announcement appeared there. It also came via e-mail. The revised schedule appeared there, but that schedule keeps dropping further down the page the more announcements there are. There’s a page where the writing assignments are listed with links where you can submit your work and see your grades, but those assignments are just numbered and lettered. They aren’t even labeled by the question which means that I had the darnedest time remembering what the last question I answered happened to be.

Even when you find your question, you have to keep going returning there over a two-week period as the assignment progresses. It all makes me wonder whether some of these people who aren’t submitting assignments have the time to do the work, but they’re just boycotting the amazingly bad interface they’d need to master to get full credit (if there even is such a thing in a MOOC).

Even before Jeremy began reading this blog, I particularly enjoyed reading his weekly e-mails because they made me feel less like a number. While he doesn’t really address the class directly on video, he clearly writes his own e-mails. This helps bring a personal touch to a rather soulless system. Yet the extension e-mail was about a paragraph long, and I believe that there was no weekly e-mail at all again last week. This seems particularly unfortunate as that e-mail certainly could have helped me navigate my assignment due date related confusion.

A few days ago, while searching for the best way to contact my satellite TV company, I discovered a website called GetHuman.com. Speaking of world history, I’m old enough to remember the days that when it was something of a scandal that your customer service operator might be talking you from Delhi, India instead of Terre Haute, Indiana. Now we’re just happy to get a human, any human at all.

Maybe there should be a site called GetProfessor.com for students who feel alienated by the impersonal nature of the MOOCS that Coursera offers us. I feel very fortunate to have this platform which my superprofessor reads. What avenues do the other 81,999 students in my course possess?

“Oh dear, how I wish I had wings.”

16 07 2012

I may be the only person around who finds it ironic that Chumbawamba broke up while I’m deep into re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class because I never owned that “Tubthumping” album. I did, however, buy their “English Rebel Songs 1381-1984” from the discount rack the last time I was in London and have been using it in my Labor History class ever since.

“Poverty Knock” as well as the early part of Thompson’s mammoth book are mostly about what English workers lost when they went into the factories. Before industrialization, spinning thread was supplementary to agricultural labor. You and your kids could do it at home when you weren’t farming. You weren’t rich, but you were together. You also controlled your own time and were probably at least marginally happy about that.

Industrialization introduced what Thorstein Veblen referred to as the “discipline of the machine.” You show up at the bell. You do your job all day. If you don’t, your bosses will see you and you won’t work at all. They wanted not just your body, but your mind in the work because they thought they owned you.

I think you can see this online education analogy coming from a mile away, but it’s actually worse than just what you expect. There is something weirdly retrograde about turning people’s homes into education factories, and that’s exactly what online education does. They can give you online office hours, monitor your keystrokes, read every word you write to your students – all while you’re in the friendly confines of your own home because they’re too cheap to find you a proper office.

Everybody wonders what students are going to do when they can’t go to keggers at frats anymore. What are professors going to do when they can’t meet and talk at the office? Seriously, you think meetings are bad now? Wait until they’re all online. Separating us into our own homes also makes it harder for professors to cause trouble on campus. After all, we might demand crazy inefficient things like shared governance and other lost relics of a bygone age like tenure, health insurance and a work/life balance.

To put it another way, when traditional teaching gets destroyed all we’ll have left is the work. If higher education becomes entirely about production, then the workers aren’t going to be allowed to do anything but produce. Here’s a quote in Thompson from a Manchester silk weaver (p. 297) that I marked for future reference:

“Labour is always carried to market by those who have nothing else to keep or to sell, and who, therefore, must part with it immediately….The labour which I…might perform this week, if I, in imitation of the capitalist, refuse to part with it…because an inadequate price is offered me for it, can I bottle it? [C]an I lay it up in salt?”

No you can’t, and your administration knows this too. They also know that the vast majority of us (especially the adjuncts) are already working ourselves to death as it is, so the only way to make us more efficient is to tie us to our machines 24/7.* You’ll wish you had wings because that’s the only way you’ll ever get out at that point. It won’t stop when you get home because you’ll be home already.

Move your work entirely onto the machine and you’ll have to sell your labor all night and all day because that will become the new normal when our time is all that we have left to sell. The pathetic thing about we professors is that so many of us are willing to ruin our lives voluntarily by helping to make this transition happen.

* I’m not kidding about that 24/7 thing. Do you know how many people sleep with their phones on near their bedsides these days?

You’re going to miss grading when it’s gone.

16 03 2012

You think it’s hard to find an academic job now? Just wait until machines start grading student essays and students start grading each other. Combine these developments with our glorious all-online higher ed future and they won’t need you anymore at all.

I can hear you now: “Surely you jest, Jonathan. You’ve been reading stuff in the Onion and forgetting it’s satire, right?” Alas, not this time. Here’s part of the executive summary of a Pearson white paper (.pdf) on their automatic essay grading technology:

In the 1990s, the people of Pearson’s Knowledge Technologies group (KT) invented many of the key techniques that enable automatic scoring of constructed language in assessment tasks. In the succeeding 15 years, Pearson has assembled these researchers into an advanced development group with an intellectual property base that is unparalleled in the assessment field. Now, working as a unique stand-alone group inside Pearson, KT has automatically scored many millions of written and spoken responses. KT has measured core language and literacy skills as evidenced in students’ constructed responses. Similar tasks also elicit responses that are assessed for content knowledge. In 2010 KT scored over 20 million spoken and written responses from all over the globe.

You don’t do this sort of thing because it offers a better critique of written work than a living, breathing person does. You do it because it’s cheaper. Much cheaper. More importantly, the labor cost savings can go to football, climbing walls in the gym or just higher administrative salaries. And Pearson doesn’t make out too badly either.

If all of this reminds you of late-nineteenth century industrialization, then you’re not alone. Unfortunately, some of the most enthusiastic proponents of technology in education seem to think that the economic displacement of the industrial era is worth duplicating. This guest post from ProfHacker recounts a recent highered navel-gazing conference at Rice:

Cathy Davidson and John Seely Brown (JSB) articulated learning frameworks for the fluid, dynamic Digital Age rather than the Industrial Age. Davidson explained that many of the practices we associate with education, including multiple choice tests and attention to task, were designed to serve the needs of the Industrial Age for standardization and a regulated labor force. In contrast, the Digital Age calls for mash-ups, customization, multi-tasking, data mining, and collaboration by difference. Davidson suggested that we should ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.

[Emphasis added]

So let me get this straight: We should turnover the reins in our own classes to machines and social algorithms because the workplace is full of machines and social algorithms? Vocational education for everyone! Better yet, let students create their own vocational education!!! Maybe they can design their own jobs too. I just hope they don’t want to become professors.

As I explained the last time I mentioned Cathy Davidson, I find her total obliviousness to the collateral damage these kinds of changes will cause extremely disturbing. However, I find the fact that so many faculty members are willing to actively participate in the destruction of their own profession even more disturbing.

If I remember my old labor history right, in his A Theory of the Labor Movement the economist Selig Perlman described American workers as job conscious as opposed to class conscious. That means that they were more concerned with putting bread and butter on the table than they were with banding together to overthrow the capitalist system. To Perlman, that was a good thing. If only academics thought that way! Too many professors writing about the future of higher ed don’t seem to care about their own long-term material well-being, which makes me think again about how much we faculty could all learn from the folks who work at Walmart.

I guarantee you that most administrators would never make this same mistake. Their own long-term material well-being is probably why they became administrators in the first place.

As if working at Starbucks wasn’t hard enough already.

15 10 2010

Even though I don’t drink coffee, I find Starbucks fascinating. I think it’s the fact that I know there’ll be a comfy chair in any major American city where they won’t kick me out while I’m reading that makes my feelings toward the company more positive than negative, but I still have great sympathy for the people who work there.

This (via Andrew Sullivan) isn’t going to make their lives any easier:

Starbucks Corp. is telling its harried baristas to slow down—which may result in longer lines.

Amid customer complaints that the Seattle-based coffee chain has reduced the fine art of coffee making to a mechanized process with all the romance of an assembly line, Starbucks baristas are being told to stop making multiple drinks at the same time and focus instead on no more than two drinks at a time—starting a second one while finishing the first, according to company documents reviewed recently by The Wall Street Journal.

On the one hand, I should applaud the fact that the soy chi tea lattes I’ll get will now likely be better across the board. More remarkably, this might be the first time in American labor history that any kind of assembly line is being deliberately slowed down. Megan McArdle (via Sullivan again), explains the broader problem in industrial relations here:

What Starbucks would really like is simply to be able to say “make a latte this way every single time”, and have thousands of baristas hop to.” But anyone who has ever managed employees knows that this isn’t quite so easy as it sounds. Even with the cleverest and most motivated employees, little changes will creep in over time; when I was a canvass field manager for PIRG, I was always a little astonished to find the varied ways that people had modified the standard “rap” they were supposed to give at each door, often without even realizing that they’d gone off script. This is why Atul Gawande is so gung-ho on making doctors hew to checklists and hard-to-modify standardized procedures.

Rules, like machines, reduce variance, but they also introduce problems of their own. As one of the baristas interviewed by the Wall Street Journal points out, it really doesn’t make sense for him to stand there and watch a frappucino blend when he could be starting an iced tea. The problem is, if you make an exception for frappucinos and iced teas, one of two things happens: you weaken the rule, so that people stop following it when it does make sense; or you create a whole set of rules that are hard to remember, and will break down under the weight of their own complexity.

So Starbucks is sticking with its rule, but that means that many customers will have to wait longer for their drinks.

Quality over quantity (with no change in price)! What’s not to like? It’s that waiting. I’ve heard enough snippy customers in my time there reading that I fear greatly for the sanity of the average barista.

An “exploded” Model T Ford.

30 03 2010

Stupid disposable cameras! Every picture I took at the Henry Ford Museum came out so bad I can’t post it here (except for an 1880 Grand Rapids Refrigerator Company icebox for some reason, and that’s only going to interest me). And yes, I was using the flash.

Lucky for me, the image I wanted most also happened to be on Flickr:

To me, that’s the perfect illustration of industrialization. You can’t depict an entire assembly line but the principle is all here in simplified form. You’re just following the parts, rather than the labor.

Besides, it’s not as if raw materials went in on one side of Highland Park plant and the final product came out the other, which raises the question of how the more complicated parts were built. Then it was at the out buildings. Now it’s Mexico or China. Having been on the Rouge Tour as well on Saturday I can report that they still make cars essentially the same way, only the number of parts in an “exploded” Ford F-150 would be too many to all hang on strings.

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