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.


“[A]nd the number of the counting shall be three.”

16 04 2014

While I was making my way home from Atlanta on Sunday, a whole bunch of my virtual and actual friends were still at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting discussing whether blogging is scholarship. While I’m sorely tempted to weigh in on this question myself, I think I’d rather follow Mike O’Malley’s example and consider exactly what scholarship is. Or to put it a slightly different way, what and who is scholarship for? Or maybe just why scholarship?

What’s sent me down this path before I even saw O’Malley’s post is this rather amazing article from Smithsonian (which I found via Rebecca Schuman, who’s probably still laughing her ass off about this days after she first read it):

“There are a lot of scientific papers out there. One estimate puts the count at 1.8 million articles published each year, in about 28,000 journals. Who actually reads those papers? According to one 2007 study, not many people: half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors, the study’s authors write.

But not all academics accept that they have an audience of three. There’s a heated dispute around academic readership and citation—enough that there have been studies about reading studies going back for more than two decades.

In the 2007 study, the authors introduce their topic by noting that “as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” They also claim that 90 percent of papers published are never cited.”

Of course, the flies in the ointment of this discussion are tenure and promotion standards. Early-career scholars with blogs want blogging to be scholarship because that will make tenure easier to attain. I know that sounds bad, but really what’s the use of running the normal academic peer review gauntlet if it’s likely that only three people will read the result?

Coincidentally, this discussion and this article happened at the same time that I have to worry about precisely this sort of thing once again. Yes, I’m a tenured full professor, but as anybody among the somewhat more than three people who read this blog regularly know our administration here at CSU-Pueblo is trying very hard to move the vast majority of professors at this institution from a 3-3 (or 9 credit) to a 4-4 (or 12 credit) teaching load. While I was once optimistic that there would be enough exceptions to that standard that most active scholars on campus would be able to avoid it and continue their research apace, I am not anymore.

Here’s why: A few weeks ago, our Provost published his new research standards at the back of a grant application form for a single semester of release time. To my knowledge, he did not consult our faculty senate or any faculty members whatsoever before doing so. Here is a selection from that document (no link because it was e-mail only, e-mail attachment only to be exact):

“At CSU-Pueblo, faculty are expected to teach 12 credit hours per semester (and engage in research/scholarly/creative activity, and perform service). I emphasize that regular scholarly activity is expected of faculty who teach a 12 cr hr teaching load per semester. Awarding equivalency time to conduct research/scholarly/creative activity, above and beyond the usual expectations that we have of faculty, requires careful justification – even moreso at a public institution, in an environment with significantly constrained resources.”

Here’s what it says about release time for scholarly activity in our faculty handbook:

“After consultation with the faculty and Chair of a department, the Dean shall recommend to the Provost all requests for release from teaching. Faculty members released from teaching assignments shall devote a minimum of three (3) clock hours per week for each semester hour of released time to tasks associated with such release….Release from teaching to engage in sponsored research, University supported scholarly or creative activity, University service or other approved activities may be authorized by the Provost dependent upon the availability of funds and program needs.”

In other words, we’re going from an environment in which the vast majority of faculty members received that one course release to an environment in which we all have to prove that we’re not ripping off the taxpayers of Colorado and we still might not get that course release anyway. Furthermore, there’s been no hint that the standards on our annual performance reviews will be amended at all to reflect this rather significant change in policy.

While I’m fortunate enough to have no need to submit this blog as proof of scholarship, other faculty members on campus might not be quite as productive as I’ve been lately. Here’s the gauntlet that we all have to run to get one of 20 or so release time “fellowships” to pay for our adjunct replacements (as described in that policy statement I referenced above):

“The Provost will not approve equivalency time for research/scholarly/creative activity for Fall 2014-Spring 2015 if there is not a demonstrable peer-reviewed work product within the previous 2 or 3 years, depending upon the amount of equivalency time requested.”

It so happens that I approve of the peer review process. In most cases it has significantly improved the work that I’ve published, but as anybody with actual experience in peer review knows this slows things down to an unimaginable degree. For example, I wrote on article to mark the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre for Labor during my sabbatical a year and a half ago in order to make the anniversary itself, which is this very week. It’s accepted, but won’t be published until the fall, months after the anniversary is over.

Will more than three people read that article? Labor is a very good journal so I think so. However, even before I read that Smithsonian article I had become increasingly convinced that most academic journals are utterly useless. The value of blogging (or God forbid practicing actual journalism) is that you’re almost instantly guaranteed a much wider audience than publication in even the most respected academic journals will ever give you. Shouldn’t the point of scholarship be to influence the way the world works? If so, how can anybody justify a narrow fixation on peer review if almost nobody reads the results?

What troubles me most, however, is my administration’s demand for a “demonstrable peer-reviewed work product” within a two to three year window. My last book took me (on and off) thirteen years. Nevertheless, I still want to write more books. Not only that, I want to write more books that people will actually read. I’m currently close to being under contract to write two more comparatively quick refrigeration related books using my surplus research. Both will be peer-reviewed (or at least extensively peer-edited). After that, however, my Harvey Wiley biography is going to take a huge amount of time for me to finish because his papers are all back East and that extra class I’ll be teaching starting this fall isn’t going to speed that process up any.

As you might imagine, this whole situation makes me incredibly sad. If the only solution to this problem is to write short, crappy, purely academic work that reads like the instructions for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and only three people ever read it, I don’t know if I want to play this game anymore.

Higher education is not available à la carte.

24 02 2014

Perhaps you saw this piece of clickbait from NPR’s Planet Money team last week? It’s called, “Duke: $60,000 A Year For College Is Actually A Discount” and it follows a familiar format: some people say this, other people say that, but – this being a Planet Money piece – they’ll tell you what’s really going on at the end of the report.

For reasons I don’t really understand, the reporter became fixated on the costs of doing academic research in the sciences. I guess this might seem particularly shocking to those not in the know:

Jennifer West is a professor of bioengineering and materials science with a long list of publications, awards and titles. To hire West away from Rice University, money wasn’t enough. She came with an entourage. “I moved a whole entire research group with me, so I had to move a lot of people and then we had to move a lot of our equipment and rebuild our lab,” she says. “They actually sent architects to Rice who looked at our lab facilities there, then used that information to go back and design the facility that would work for us at Duke.”

West is not alone. Duke pays what it calls “startup costs” for a lot of professors, particularly in the sciences.

How much of that was paid for by government grants? How much of those costs were paid for by private companies? Certainly, with less support for higher education in general, a lot of what used to get paid for these ways is now being subsidized by tuition, but why is this a bad thing if the research is valuable to society?

The answer to that last question depends upon selfish individualism. Here’s the sound of the other shoe dropping:

Charles Schwartz, a retired professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who has been studying university finances for the past 20 years, takes issue with this way of accounting. He says it’s unfair to place the financial cost of professors like Jennifer West, who spend most of their time in the lab, on undergraduate students. “It’s just wrong to bundle all those costs together,” he says.

But how exactly are you going to pull those costs apart? If I were to underpay my taxes and write, “Please understand that the underpayment here is to avoid my having to pay for building those nuclear bombs that I don’t really support,” they’d lock me away. Or suppose I’m a racist. I don’t want to support African American Studies because I don’t believe it’s valuable. Can I withhold the portion of my tuition that goes to that? Of course not because, like government, higher education forces you to subsidize the whole hog because that’s the only way the whole thing works.

Don’t get me wrong. I think $60,000/year for a Duke education is ridiculously overpriced, but the implicit notion in that Planet Money report that students should be able to buy higher education à la carte is completely ridiculous. Why not do away with all graduation requirements then? After all, if I’m going to be a CS major why should I have to learn a foreign language? What good is a history requirement to a nursing major? A lot, of course, but this is the road down which this kind of consumerism will take us.


If I sound unduly sympathetic to Duke University’s ludicrously-high tuition, it’s probably because of a meeting with our Provost that I attended last Thursday. You might remember that during his first all-faculty meeting, our Provost joked that we faculty members only worked three days per week. This meeting went better than that one at first. For a while, it was actually valuable.

The first thing he did was report on the last meeting of our Board of Governors. Apparently, he told the assembled professors, they hate you all. Why? He wasn’t exactly sure, but he didn’t have to tell us. A copy of an e-mail from Chancellor Michael Martin to nobody in particular was circulating from faculty member to faculty member in the days leading up to the meeting. Here’s the part that contains the big tell:

“I would note that CSU-Pueblo students are currently paying fulltime faculty salaries for faculty not working fulltime…Participating in Denver South could relieve some of this unproductive burden on students.”

That’s why every last single professor on campus with out administrative duties or grant money has to teach an extra course starting next semester. We’re “unproductive.”

But, in fact, we’re not. You see, the only reason that faculty are not currently teaching the optimum number of courses by Chancellor Martin’s estimation is that policies exist in our handbook that allow faculty members to get release time for research. The vast majority of us (myself included) teach three courses each semester because we actually do research. Chancellor Martin wants to unbundle that function from our job description so that students won’t have top pay for it.

Unfortunately, even this financial justification for this policy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. During our meeting with the provost, somebody (OK, it was me) pressed him about how exactly faculty losing their research release time actually saves money. The first thing he mentioned was that faculty with higher loads will replace the $290,000 worth of adjunct faculty that we’re in the process firing. Of course, that’s a pittance in the overall university budget. Nevertheless, my fellow tenured and tenure-track colleagues, never forget that the ability to hire someone to do the only part of their your job that an administrator cares about at a fraction of what you cost is a constant threat to your employment and your quality of life.

But the provost admitted that that small scrap of money wasn’t the real motive. During my portion of the conversation with the provost, I proposed the following scenario: Imagine two identical courses with the same professor teaching both, fifteen people in each of them, but the room holds thirty. Can we cancel one section and merge the class? After all, it wouldn’t cost any money. No, the provost said, because that would be political suicide. Yes, they’re making us teach a 4-4 because the Board of Governors of the Colorado State System doesn’t think we work hard enough, not because it does anything for the budget or anything for education. Still no word on whether they feel the same way about Fort Collins.

It’s enough to make you nihilistic, don’t you think?


Last week, Bob Casale of Devo died. Coincidentally, I was teaching Jeff Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive in my 1945-Present class. The book is about the death of the working class during the 1970s, and it’s quite wonderful in large part (but not exclusively) because of it’s many astute cultural references. While I was surprised that my students had never heard of Archie Bunker (who I had thought of as a kind of Mickey Mouse-style cultural icon), I knew that I was going to have to tell them about Devo. That’s right, Cowie explains the politics of Devo.

If you haven’t read the book, to save time I’ll just tell you that those politics revolve around nihilism. Yeah, I missed that too when I was in high school, but really the politics are there. Here’s the video I picked to illustrate Devo’s philosophy:

This is the key lyric, at least for me:

In ancient Rome there was a poem
About a dog who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead

You just know that Mark Mothersbaugh had OD’ed on Milton Friedman by the time he wrote those words. In the video, there are two guys dressed as Caligula, one holding this dude in a cheap dog suit by a leash. To me, this sounds like the perfect metaphor for cheap higher education. Freedom of choice? In fact, when both choices are bad you get no real choice at all.

Why are both choices bad? That depends upon who exactly is holding the leash. Here’s Planet Money again (this was their snide little aside at the end of the story about which position you should actually believe):

If you’re engaged in research and capitalizing on your professors’ expertise, maybe you’re getting something that’s worth more than what you paid. If you’ve got a good financial aid package, you’re definitely getting a good deal. But if you’re a full-paying student, who’s not learning much from professors outside the classroom, it’s the university that’s getting the deal.

But rip faculty research out of the equation and the quality of the entire product will suffer. Take me, for instance. I teach a research methods class for both undergrads and graduate students. Don’t you think I’ll do that better if I actually have time to do research? More importantly, if Duke students are willing to pay $60,000/year to have access to faculty who do actual research, what does this tell you about the quality of higher education at an institution where professors don’t have time to do any research at all?

Any notion that higher education is available à la carte is a complete illusion. Behind Door #1 is austerity. Behind Door #2 is more austerity. There is no Door #3.

What too few of us understand is that faculty are facing the same rotten choices that our students now get. Faced with numerous vocal complaints about our pending 4-4, the provost told us that you make time to do what you love. That comment was met by the loudest series of groans I’ve ever heard from all over the room. Oddly enough, while workers during the 1970s may have forgotten their class consciousness, professors at CSU-Pueblo seem to be discovering theirs again.

Why you should buy my book or the refrigeration blogging begins.

23 09 2013

During the 1990s, the fourth floor of the Engineering Library at the University of Wisconsin – Madison had shelves lined with old trade journals. When you got off the elevator, the volumes directly at eye level were called “Ice and Refrigeration.” I was working with unbelievably old copies of the journal “Iron Age” back then as my dissertion was about the steel industry. These were not quite so old, but they, like their subject, were almost untouched by human hands (which I knew because I had to separate many of the pages myself). What I found there seemed quite extraordinary.

Once upon time (c. 1900) there was an enormous ice industry in the United States. Huge plants running five-ton machinery would knock out sheets and blocks of ice the size of several people. This ice then got broken up and sold door-to-door by covered wagons in towns and cities across America. I had heard of the cutting of ice off lakes and rivers around New England before this. From there the ice got transported to and sold in places as far away as India. But this was something else entirely! Here was an enormous, historically-significant completely dead industry, untouched in the historiography. I started my research trying to explain why these plants seemed to burn down so much. After all, they were ice plants after all! Technology and Culture published that all the way back in 2005. Then I kept going.

From there, I started reading about all the different segments of this industry and decided I wanted to write a book about how one technology passed into another: natural ice to mechanical refrigeration to home refrigeration, iced refrigerator cars to mechanically refrigerated railway cars to refrigerated shipping containers, iceboxes to electric household refrigerators and many more. What I found was that “inferior” technologies you’d expect to go extinct quickly persisted longer than you might ever imagine. The ice delivery man, for example, survived into the 1950s. Ice harvesting with horses actually survived past World War I. This tendency, as you might imagine, has had a huge influence on my MOOC blogging.

The other reason you should read my book is because it’s really great food writing. No, it’s not why cod or the hamburger or the ice cube saved the world, but it covers all these things and more. Basically, if you want to research anything that deals with perishable food, you’re going to have to read this book. After all, the last scholarly publication on this subject was published in the early-1950s. I remain amazed that I spent thirteen years (off and on) writing up this project and nobody beat me to the punch.

So, have I peaked your interest? If so, you can visit the nice people at the Johns Hopkins University Press and get your copy of Refrigeration Nation faster than any online bookseller as theirs are in stock now. Even just recommending it to your local library would make me very happy.

Everyone their own professor (w/ apologies to Carl Becker).

3 04 2013

I. Everyone Their Own Sushi Chef.

Last summer, I tried sushi for the first time. I was in Korea at the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul and I went into a restaurant with a big banner in English that said, “Tourists welcome.” To that point in time, I had been one of those people who said smarmy things like, “I prefer my dead fish cooked, thank you.” However, having fallen under the spell of Andrew Zimmern [“If it looks good, eat it.”], I thought it was time to give sushi a try.

Some of it was wonderful. I particularly remember the octopus sashimi because it was easily identifiable, and thanks to this scene from “No Reservations,” octopus had become the ultimate in creative Korean dining in my narrow American mind. Inevitably, some of the rest of the sushi I had there tasted awful to me. Unfortunately, the woman who served me there spoke very little English so I had no way to identify which kinds of sushi I liked, and which kinds I didn’t. I lacked guidance.

If I hadn’t had sushi, I never would have rented the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on Netflix last week. That documentary about an 85-year-old sushi master, Jiro Ono, was simultaneously boring and riveting. [My wife lasted with it for only 45 minutes, but later she said to me, “I couldn’t stop thinking about him [meaning Jiro] all day.”] Perhaps the most obvious takeaway from the film for a sushi novice like me is that preparing great sushi is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Towards the end of the movie, a food critic explains that eating at Jiro’s restaurant is a bit like listening to a symphony. The “performance” has movements and is scripted to the last detail. Patrons get one piece a time in a particular order to heighten taste sensations. The pieces that women receive are slightly smaller than those going to men so that their smaller mouths won’t slow down the production. The chefs are trained to see which hand each patron favors so that the pieces can be put on the side of the plate that each person favors too.

Why should anyone care about this? Sure, you can just eat sushi like I did, but don’t you want to make the most out of a new experience? If you understand sushi the way that Jiro does, you can learn more than you ever thought possible. The film (and this is what got my wife thinking so hard) even tells you something really special about the nature of work.

In order to see this subculture in all its glory, you have to have a guide. You have to get a sushi education.

II. Everyone Their Own Librarian.

When I was in graduate school, I used to play a game I called “Stump the Government Docs Librarian.” While I don’t think my dissertation was particularly good, it was well-researched in large part because I managed to find all sorts of extremely obscure reports that weren’t even in the US Government Serial Set thanks to the wonderful help I got at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Obviously, Google Books and other such databases now make finding these kinds of obscure sources rather easy. One click, and all the greatest libraries of the world are at your fingertips. In the future, as these resources become even more powerful, they could actually put libraries and librarians out of business. As Nick Carr recognizes, this has created a certain amount of tension between the good folks putting together the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and local institutions:

The DPLA leadership is sensitive to this tension, sometimes to the point of defensiveness. In announcing his appointment, [DPLA Director Dan] Cohen wrote, “The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country.” Yet the first sentence of the DPLA charter reads, “The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all.” It’s hard to see how the DPLA will be able to fulfill such a broad mission without treading on the turf of local public libraries.

In this environment, librarians will have to provide a different kind of guidance. While we may no longer need them to help us find particular books, librarians can still help researchers figure out how to find needles in a series of gigantic haystacks. For example, what search term should you put in that database?

Besides interlibrary loan, I rely on local librarians to tell me what databases are available to me at our institution. I also need help learning how to improve my searches. As almost any history professor knows, students generally know almost nothing about how to search the web when a Google search of a single word or phrase does not yield usable results. That’s why I include lots of librarian time in every class I teach which requires a research paper. In fact, as the tech has gotten better, I’ve expanded that time rather than cut it back.

III. Everyone Their Own Historian.

In 1931, Carl Becker gave what may be the most famous presidential speech in the history of the American Historical Association. He called it “Everyman His Own Historian.” Sexist language aside, Becker’s speech was a poignant call for historians to recognize that academic history only has a purpose when it meets the needs of the public:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman. It is for this reason that the history of history is a record of the “new history” that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old.

I tend to think of Becker’s speech most often during the periodic “Why can’t we all write like David McCulloch?” dust-ups that periodically echo through my profession. Nevertheless, Becker was no anarchist. He still envisioned a role for professional historians in a world where one did not have to have a Ph.D. in order to write good history:

[The history profession’s] proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.

We historians, in other words, should provide guidance to people trying to come to grips with their own pasts. After all, nobody has the time to research everything they need to tell their own stories. Professional historians can provide the kind of analysis and perspective that amateur historians cannot or choose not to offer.

Without that perspective and analysis, not even David McCullough could write like David McCullough.

IV. Everyone Their Own Professor.

If nothing else, MOOCs [You just knew I’d get to them eventually, didn’t you?] have brought the “Everyman His Own Historian” problem to every discipline in Academia. After all, why should I pay to go to college if I can listen to all the best professors in the world do their thing for free? In fact, if I run their lectures on 150% speed, I can learn everything I need to know in less time that it actually took for them to tell their stories in the first place! And I can do it at home in my pajamas! How can that not be progress?

Not so fast MOOC maniacs. Even the author of DIY U has noted that MOOCs aren’t an education by themselves. Take it away, Anya Kamenetz:

But I have something to say about MOOCs. Specifically about the quality of pedagogy in MOOCs as offered by platforms like Coursera and Udacity and edX. David Wiley, who has taught me a lot of stuff, said this at least five years ago, actually. MOOCs are content. Content is infrastructure. Infrastructure is just the first step.

MOOCs are content = a MOOC is not a course.

I suspect she and I would differ greatly on how much guidance a student needs after the MOOC starts, but isn’t it better to have more guidance rather than less? What too many people don’t understand is that the inevitable effect of MOOCs will be to take that guidance away entirely for most students.

This is what makes members of the MOOC Suicide Squad members of the MOOC Suicide Squad. When I read this post by Mark McDayter, I said to myself, “He’s solved the Cathy Davidson problem!,” namely how to deal with an educator whose goals you embrace, but whose methods will make those goals harder to achieve. You explain the political context in which those methods must inescapably operate:

Davidson, I am reasonably confident, does not support the gutting of Humanities departments and the replacement of teaching faculty with MOOCs. Indeed, she explicitly says as much. But her adoption of the language of the techno-enthusiasts is not nearly nuanced or critical enough to avoid giving aid and comfort to The Enemy.

Who is the Enemy? There are people who are enemies of higher education in general and people who are enemies of professors in particular. We will never win over enemies of higher education in general, who are often very conservative people who think that students can learn anything worth learning all by themselves with no access to professors at all. However, the enemies of professors in particular don’t always recognize that they are enemies of professors. Our job is to show them the light of reason.

If we professors can’t explain why the guidance we provide is an essential part of the college experience, we deserve the fate that inevitably awaits us.*

* That last link is to a Chronicle of Higher Ed article that’s subscription only as I write this, but you can still see my point here just by reading the headline.

Research isn’t part of Professor Pushbutton’s job description.

10 12 2012

“Universities are also generators of new knowledge, a fact that is entirely overlooked by the desire to automate teaching and turn it over to Professor Pushbutton.”

Historiann, December 6, 2012.

Today is when grades are due here at CSU-Pueblo. Normally, I would have had them done days ago, but since I’ve been on sabbatical this semester I’ve had no grading to do at all. Therefore, today marks the official end of my period of personal privilege. I far exceeded the necessary chapter of the new project I promised my employer in order to get the time off. In fact, after I publish this post, I’ll be turning in the manuscript for my previous project (via Dropbox, which I think is pretty cool).* That’s the history of the American ice and refrigeration industries which I described in this space when I first got that contract.

Why should the taxpayers of Colorado fund this sort of thing? The answer to that question is surprisingly simple: Because it makes me a better teacher. For one thing, I teach both the undergraduate and graduate history research seminars at this university. If I didn’t have time to conduct research I’d be pretty bad at teaching it, don’t you think? Equally importantly, I teach the same subjects that I study. The whole refrigeration book has helped move me towards the subfield of food history, which I want to start teaching next fall in part because it will hopefully bring in students by the boatloads (assuming my reputation as a cranky vegetarian doesn’t scare them all off). I even wrote a book based on what I’ve learned in ten+ years of teaching the second half of the U.S. Survey. I’ll start using it in January to help my students learn that material better.

Anybody who’s been reading anywhere near as much press about MOOCs as I have these days has seen a variation on this line by Coursera’s Daphne Koller:

With an online course, students get the benefit of having constant interaction with the material, as well as learning at their own pace; in-class time is then freed up to give students more opportunities for interaction with their instructor.

The not-so-subtle implication of this argument is that faculty aren’t spending enough time teaching in the classroom already. The thing is – and this is what non-professors, especially faculty-bashing politicians, never understand – what we do outside the classroom informs everything we do inside the classroom. When content creation is farmed out entirely to superprofessors there’ll be no need for us to go anywhere to gather knowledge because we won’t need that knowledge in order to do our vastly downscaled jobs. As Tenured Radical explained last week:

In fact, if you look closely, practically everything that is wrong with academia is the fault of the faculty. It is as if no economic contractions have occurred over the past four decades.

Research is, of course, one of the problems associated with the position she’s mocking here, not one of the solutions. But without research to inform our teaching we become expensive teaching assistants, and teaching assistants don’t get sabbaticals.

* Actually, I would have the whole thing turned in today, but the Baker Library at Harvard has missed their own deadline to get me my last illustration so the whole thing won’t actually be submitted until I get that picture. Today is for formatting files and printing out the paper copy for eventual mailing, but I figured that’s close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades

A dull, wonkish post about technology and historical research.

10 09 2012

Today I’m starting the second (and last) week of my research trip in and around DC. Last week I was at the Library of Congress. After I leave this Panera, I start in at Archives II, assuming I can figure out the bus schedule.

Most of the papers that I’ve been looking at have turned out to be obscure published speeches and government reports. As I don’t have much time here in the great scheme of things, I’ve found myself checking Google Books to see if everything in front of me was already there. Some of it was. Some of it wasn’t.

I can’t tell you what an enormous change this has been for me. Normally, I’d be taking everything I’m sure I’d use eventually up to the copier and copying like crazy. Now, the LOC has put in the best book scanners that I’ve ever seen (both in the Manuscript Reading Room and in Adams) which you can use for free as long as you have a thumb drive to store your results. Free stuff from the government! Somebody tell Paul Ryan!

I scanned a few pamphlets, but for visual material it’s just priceless. Indeed, I’m also deep in the throes of picking pictures for this book and I’ve basically had to go by memory. Next time it’s going to be different. Of course, this is all to save the spines of the books, but I still feel like I hit the lottery.

I may be alone in this feeling because it seems that most people have gone entirely to cameras. I’ve seen some mounted on tripods, while some people it seems just bring in the same $90 Samsungs that they use on their vacations and snap away. I even saw one woman snapping pictures of her microfilm reader. [It may sound logical, but it sure looks funny.]

I was prepared to start using a camera and a tripod before this sabbatical started, but a few weeks back I changed my mind. Most of the sources I’m using using are pre-1923 and published. Indeed, I really can download most of them for free with a lot less hassle.

For the one-of-a-kind published and archival material (and you know, as more books are becoming available to everyone this is what will set great works of history apart in the future) I’ve got Zotero, which still beats the heck out of note cards. This is going to be my first all Zotero book, and I’m certain it’s going to take months off the writing process. After all, it’s having intellectual control of your research that’s most important when technology makes it easy to flood you with material.

Perhaps it’s a sign of my advanced age that I’ve chosen to avoid swimming in document snap shots. When I do research, I actually enjoy reading what I find in folders rather than just snapping them or even trying to copy it all. In fact, I think I do some of my best thinking that way. And in case you didn’t notice, I hate reading off a computer screen when it can be easily avoided.

Is it any wonder then why I don’t want my entire job to turn out that way?

So I got a book contract…

20 08 2012

…which explains why I want to write about publishing academic history from the author’s point of view. Normally, I save my history blogging for the nice folks at the Historical Society, but this is going to be too personal for there. However, I promise what follows will be more than just a victory lap as I think I’ve actually learned a few things during this very long project which I want to share.

Seven publishers rejected my revised dissertation. My evenlual publisher required me to buy ninety-five copies (at $34.95 a pop that’s quite a hit) in order for them to put the book out. This alone was enough for me to get tenure, so it was a good investment. Still, I was deeply ashamed for a long time even after I found out that this has become increasingly common practice in academic publishing.

I started the book I just got a contract for in 2000, while I was waiting for something to come together on the dissertation. [Yes, you read that date right, but to be fair I have published two other books in the interim, including one you can pre-order right now.] This newest one is a history of the American ice and refrigeration industries, tentatively titled Refrigeration Nation: How America Learned to Control the Cold.* The publisher will be the Johns Hopkins University Press. The Johns Hopkins University Press was one of the seven publishers that rejected my revised dissertation. Since the manuscript is done and has survived peer review, I suspect it will come out sometime early next year.

So what changed between then and now?:

1) Topics matter. My dissertation was on labor policy in the American steel industry. It’s an interesting subject, but it is hardly empty historiographic space. In contrast, the last monograph on refrigeration in America came out in 1953. Even then, that book was a business history. I spent years reading old trade journals so that I could learn the details of different refrigeration technologies. As a result, my book should be close to unique. For a technology this historically important, I still find that fact amazing.

2) Learning by doing. While there was merit in my dissertation (particularly the research) I wrote myself into a corner early on and couldn’t get out. What does that mean? I structured the entire book before I finished my research and couldn’t adapt it well when the peer reviews came in. To make matters worse, I kept trying to change that manuscript to meet the demands of the last review anyway. This time, I took lots of time to decide exactly how I wanted to organize the manuscript, and tried to be flexible. I think this is one of those lessons you just have to learn by doing it wrong the first time so that you never forget its importance going forward.

3) I took it on the road. Some people think that conferences are just glorified vacations. Sure, we all sneak out for a few hours at some point during the weekend sometimes to see something historical, but I’ve been giving parts of this manuscript as conference papers since around 2006 and I can’t tell you how much that’s helped. A Hagley conference in 2006 is where I figured out my argumett for the first time. It was at a food studies conference at UC-Davis in 2009 that I realized that I needed to include a global perspective in order to demonstrate the fact that America is particularly refrigeration crazy. That took about three extra years, but it’s a much better book as a result. Most importantly, it was at the Society for the History of Technology meeting three years ago that I got recruited by the JHU Press straight out of my session. All they knew was the subject of the book and the contents of the paper I had just given, but that proved to be enough (See change #1).

4) Arguments matter. The problem with my dissertation was that I wrote it story first, argument afterward. As a result, my argument was overly simplistic. When I started this project, I actually thought describing a dead industry (I started with just ice, but then went forward to the present) would be enough to justify publication. That might be true if the book were just for refrigerating engineers, but it’s not. An argument shouldn’t overwhelm a story, but it needs to be there nonetheless in order to make your expertise interesting to people who wouldn’t care otherwise. It’s sad that I didn’t figure that out while I was still in grad school, but I’m glad I at least figured it out now while I’m still young enough to have a few more books in me.

Speaking of more books, I get to use my sabbatical this semester to start a biography of Harvey Wiley, the guy who was the first head of what would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration. I want to use his life as a way to discuss the adulteration of foods of all kinds. This will include meat, bread, sugar, whiskey – even Coca-Cola.

Continuing my uphill climb, my plan this time is to get an agent and a contract with an advance from a trade press. If you happen to have an agent – or even better, if you happen to be an agent – you know how I write if you read this blog regularly. Any interested parties should use my contact info on the right.

PS Regular snarky technoskeptical blogging will resume with my next post.

* Yes, I know the “nation” title formulation is now cliché, but it really fits the argument. Also, it rhymes! How many other historians do you know have books with titles that rhyme?

“Sclemeel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated.”

18 04 2012

I love Wisconsin, but there aren’t a lot of reasons to go there unless you’re driving from Chicago to Minneapolis. Sure, the House on the Rock is the coolest thing ever, but I’m not going to fly out there just for that. That’s why I’m so happy that this year’s Organization of American Historians convention is in Milwaukee.

I’m on the program. If you’re there, you can come say hello when I don’t read a paper about the origins of the American ice industry at 1:30PM on Friday. However, I wouldn’t blame you at all for going to see the panel at the same time with Bill Cronon, Eric Foner, Linda Gordon and Mary Beth Norton instead.

I mention this here only to explain why this blog is about to go dark for about a week.* I don’t leave for Milwaukee until later this afternoon, but I can already tell that this is going to be the busiest convention I’ve ever been to in my entire life. It makes sense when you think about it because an awful lot of ex-cheeseheads like me got on the program probably because they didn’t have much reason to visit the Badger State otherwise either.

Too bad the OAH didn’t organize a field trip to the House on the Rock. Or the Mustard Museum. Or the World’s Largest Six Pack.

* I may tweet a bit, but I refuse to live-Tweet anything because tapping into your phone while someone is talking is rude. And I don’t want any guff about that because you all know in your heart of hearts that that’s true.

Your scholarship won’t pay their bills.

11 02 2012

Judging from the number of mentions in my Twitter feed, this appears to be the blog post of the weekend. It describes a question from the Grafton-Lemisch jobs for historians session at last month’s AHA:

The very first question from the floor came from a historian who was also an administrator at a small regional college — the college president, if I am not mistaken, though I didn’t write it down in my notes and so I couldn’t swear to it. Anyhow, coming from a small department at a small school, this questioner had served on every search and been a part of every hiring committee for history professors at his institution since his arrival there.

Here is part of what he had to say about why history PhDs are having trouble finding jobs: “A large percentage of the graduates from your programs are not really worth looking at.” Out of scores of applications, this commenter said, “maybe the top ten percent are head and shoulders above the rest,” and the rest do not seem to be qualified for academic work period. He said that PhD programs are producing sub-par scholars. “And,” he concluded, “I haven’t heard any of you address this.”

My first inclination was to think that the author of that post must have misheard something, but then I remembered this guest post from the Professor Is In that made me cringe in the exact same way:

The administration did not waste time wringing its hands and piously invoking our teaching mission. “Teaching mission?” Please. That’s for the public. As they told the department in no uncertain terms, active scholars make the best teachers. Indeed, they promptly took the opportunity to chastise the “teaching first” crowd, publicly, that their tenure cases would be at risk if they didn’t step it up and publish more themselves.

The message was very clear: anyone can teach, and the administration is tired of professors who come here, settle into teaching and then do a minimal level of research and service both. The research-centric post-2009 hire, by contrast, are competitive with junior faculty at higher ranked schools with lower teaching burdens. Apparently, this boosts the campus’s standing with the state, which brings more money in, which makes administrators happy.

I happen to love doing research. It’s fun. It’s useful. It’s the reason I have a sabbatical coming up in the fall. I actually agree that active scholars make the best teachers. If you can’t do research, how will explain to your students where historical knowledge originates? if you can’t write well, how will you teach your students to write? Yet in the end, the vast majority of us have to be teachers first and scholars second. Nobody would ever pay me do research if I couldn’t teach. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be contributing to the university’s revenue stream.

Notice the similarity between those two accounts. Both locate the scholarship-first position among administrators. You’d think that administrators would know better. After all, your scholarship won’t pay their bills. Students don’t pay tuition to watch you work in the library.

Call me paranoid, but I have a theory. I think the cringe-inducing implicit and explicit belittling of teaching on display here is camouflage. Your scholarship is the best way possible to put lipstick on the pig that is our glorious online future. “See we are a real university!,” they’ll tell the prospective parents who’ll be paying most of the tuition bills. Then they’ll farm their online curriculum out to adjuncts and the 90% of new Ph.D.s who don’t “deserve” tenure-track jobs because these unworthy souls don’t do work that gets the kind of attention they need to put their evil plan into place. Your scholarship won’t pay their bills, but it will serve as an excellent fig leaf to cover the exploitive system that will.

Scholarly superstars, are you going turn a blind eye to this exploitive system? In the age of austerity, research time is a luxury that they’ll eventually feel comfortable eradicating for everyone. If I’m right, your scholarship eventually won’t pay your bills either.

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