Even superprofessors deserve academic freedom.

9 07 2014


Over on my personal blog, I write a lot about MOOCs. You might say I’m more than a little MOOC-obsessed, but I really am trying to develop other interests. That effort ran aground this week when a Massive Open Online Course at the University of Zurich basically imploded. It’s a confusing story (the Chronicle report on it is here  and the IHE report is here if you want to try to figure it out for yourself), but the best I can tell is that the professor leading that MOOC on “massive learning,” Paul-Olivier Dehaye, deleted its contents while in progress in order to protest the data collection policies of the MOOC provider that sponsored it, Coursera.

Since Dehaye has made no direct statement about his actions, the early reporting (and the Twitter speculation before anything got reported) included a number of other theories. Nevertheless, the definitive explanation for Dehaye’s actions…

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How to do shared governance badly.

21 03 2014

What’s Going on at CSU-Pueblo, Part 10: A review, plus some news.


I’ve been meaning to visit here and tell the story of the difficult situation at my university, Colorado State University – Pueblo, for some time now, but I waited until now so that my story has a moral. You may have read about the problems that my friend Tim McGettigan has been having with his e-mail, but that incident was a direct result of sudden and unprecedented budget cuts announced last December during finals week. At that time, we were told that up to 50 positions, including those occupied by tenure track professors from across the university, might be eliminated unless we could figure out how to cut $3.3 million from the upcoming 2014-15 budget.

In an effort to limit the number of people who might be fired, a group of faculty leaders from across campus met extensively with CSU-Pueblo President Lesley Di Mare over Christmas Break. Those meetings…

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A Turing Test for online education.

11 10 2012

I picked up the Radiolab habit this summer when I was in South Korea. Since all four tv channels that I could get in my room broadcast entirely in Korean, I had lots of podcast time. Radiolab made sense because I’m getting more science-y as I grow older. [Do scientists get more history-ish as they age?]

Yesterday morning at the gym, I was listening to this very good short on the mathematician Alan Turing. Now, I’d heard of Turing before and I’d heard of the Turing Test before, but it just so happens that I was also thinking about the next post that I’d write for this blog about the same time. As a result, this was the first time that I had ever put Turing and online education together.

A Turing Test, to give a quick definition for the uninitiated, is something Turing proposed as a way to determine whether machines can really think. Basically, he said that if you separate someone from a machine by a curtain and give that person a keyboard connected to the machine, and they can’t tell whether or not they’re communicating with a machine, then that machine is really thinking.

Leaving synchronous instruction out of this, the distances inherent in online education do act as something of a curtain. I propose that if a student can’t tell if they’re being taught online by a person or a computer program, then computers can guide people into higher order learning.

Unlike in Turing’s test, however, I think there’s some evidence to suggest that this kind of instruction is happening now. Let me make an analogy from the world of chess. Recently, I taught my 8-year-old to play. He beats me more than every once in a while because I’m not particularly good at chess. I make far too many dumb mistakes. Nevertheless, I’m proud because I taught him everything he knows (which isn’t all that much). For example, I told him to take over the middle of the board and see what develops. I told him to always castle in order to protect his king. I explained that a rook is more valuable than a bishop or a horse and that he should value the bishop and the horse equivalently. Watching me play has reinforced those strategies.

My son probably would have learned more by playing a computer. My worst failing at chess is that I can’t think more than one move in advance since doing so gives me a headache. Computers can play out almost infinitely, so they likely would have served as a better example for strategy.

If you do play computer chess, you know that the computer isn’t really thinking because you probably understand how the programming works, but imagine a situation where someone was getting their moves secretly signalled to them by a computer and you didn’t know it. You’d think they were a genius because the computer can think more effectively about chess than you can.

Now imagine that the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go. In other words, a situation where all the rules are broken. That’s higher order thinking in the humanities. Can a machine ever offer that kind of instruction without a real person responding directly to students in something close to real time? Can a machine teach students to make their own rules?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking how effective online education is at teaching, but rather what kind of things do we want online students to actually learn.

What can tenure-track faculty do about the adjunct problem?, Part 3: Don’t mourn. Organize.

28 03 2012

There is nothing more disappointing to me about academia than our lack of collective consciousness. I think that has to do most with the prevalent hierarchies that start before you’re even accepted into graduate school. First you get into the best school you can, competing against everyone else who applied that year. Then you fight for funding against your fellow graduate students. Then you often compete against hundreds of others for the choicest job possible. Once you make it to the top of that hierarchy, you compete against your colleagues for as much of your university’s limited resources that you can snag for yourself.

Tenured professors go through a remarkable hazing to get where they are: Yearly evaluations, publish or perish, tenure committees. Make it that far and you are a success. Like Andrew Carnegie before you, you suspect that anyone who doesn’t make it as far as you must have some character defect that held them back. Why should you worry about how much anyone else is earning? Well, I hope I’ve answered that question already. However, if those answers didn’t sell you on co-operation, let me give you one more: Here today, gone tomorrow.

I’m not just talking about being replaced by a computer program. In the age of permanent austerity, your department can disappear right out from under you. [First they came for the Classicists…”.] Education reform in the United States is so vicious that certain lying liars who shall remain nameless want you to teach six to eight classes each semester. Academia is so heartless that something like seventy-five percent of the teaching faculty at American universities don’t have job security or a wage that reflects their years of education. And as I said previously, you’ll never get what you deserve as long as someone is willing to do the only aspect of your job that education reformers really care about for a lot less money.

That’s why you have to organize. As a labor historian, I am an advocate for collective bargaining in all instances because it raises wages and improves working conditions. That’s why any contingent faculty member who won’t sign a union card is certifiably insane (assuming the organizing union is smart enough to keep dues at an absolute minimum). They have nowhere to go but up. However, as Our Walmart and the New Faculty Majority have amply demonstrated, you don’t need a union in order to organize. All you need is a lot of people standing beside you when the going gets tough.

But that requires a certain degree of commitment to your colleague’s best interests. If they start by coming for the adjuncts, you have to stand behind the adjuncts. That way, they’ll be around to stand behind you when the tables are inevitably turned. So stop thinking so much about yourself and your career all the time! Everyone assumes that academia is stock full of liberals already, so act like one. That requires not just showing some empathy, but acting upon it.

Besides, you don’t really want to be an administrator anyways.

Subway posters ’til you’re blue in the face.

21 10 2010

I love subway posters. Therefore, I had high hopes for this post. Disappointed by what Ivy Lee did in New York, I did some Googling and found Subway poster heaven on the web site for the London Transport Museum.

The best review I’ve ever gotten.

12 10 2010

Six+ months after my book came out, the second review that I’ve seen has appeared in the September issue of Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. There’s no link as I just got it from my publisher as an e-mail attachment, but I promise I’m not making this up:

By focusing on the structure, operations, and routines of the Rockefeller Plan, Rees (history, Colorado State Univ.-Pueblo) has produced an informative and worthy analysis of American labor history and employee representation. This thorough and focused scholarly study utilizes a wealth of primary and archival information to produce a discerning and meticulous history that will appeal to and inform specialized readers.

Just in case you happen to be one of those specialized readers, you can buy the book here or the electronic book retailer of your choice.

Free stuff without the middle man.

22 08 2010

Randall Stephens is my new hero. Yes, his post on maps is good for finding maps to use as slides for class (which I needed), but what I hadn’t realized until I started clicking his links was that publishers had started giving their slides away for free on the Internet rather than requiring me to take a copy of the book through their representatives and then get them from the disc that goes with it.

This is wonderful news to me because I’ve been aspiring to double my supply of slides fast so that I can change the way I lecture. My goal is to work off the pictures rather than my notes so that I can be more spontaneous. Having such large slide libraries available at my fingertips is much more efficient than just using Google Images to find everything that I need.

If there are any publishers doing the same thing that aren’t in Stephens’ post (I found the Bedford St. Martins image library myself but lost the link), please drop me a note in the comments.

Martin Luther King discusses the “New Negro” (1957).

12 08 2010

“Miracles From Agriculture (1960)” (excerpt).

7 08 2010

Back to the movie editing today. This Department of Agriculture propaganda piece is for my food history class, but maybe I’ll use it in survey too. I like it because it shows that supermarkets really can fight communism. The entire twelve minute movie is well worth watching if just for the part where they gush over how much meat Americans could eat then.

By the way, who goes to the supermarket in a tux?

Color photographs from the Farm Security Administration.

5 08 2010

I’m ashamed that I had to go through Boing Boing to see these at what’s practically my hometown paper, the Denver Post. My favorite from their gallery is above.

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