“I don’t know why I love her like I do. All the trouble that you put me through.”

19 03 2012

Although my birthday isn’t until later this week, my wife gave me my big present early. It’s a new iPod to replace the one I got back in 2006. It is an absolutely astounding thing to me that iPod one is about a third the size of my last one yet it must have at least four times the capacity. It has enough memory for me to transfer all the music on my laptop and still have plenty of room for all the podcasts that I had downloaded over the years and never got around to playing. In fact, I still haven’t played anything on that iPod other than those podcasts.

All my talk about podcasts amuses my wife. It’s not that she dislikes “This American Life,” but she can’t get over the fact that I have more interest in listening to 5-year-old radio programs than I do in listening to my music. Yet to me, that’s what makes the iPod such a terrific gift. I love it because I can use it my way, not the way that I’m expected to use it. It is technology under my control, not technology that controls me.

This is the context from which I’ve been watching Adam Curtis’ “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace,” a BBC documentary that I first read about at reeserants (different spelling, so no relation). I’ve seen all three hours of the documentary now, and to try to sum it up here seems next to impossible. It’s one of those documentaries that starts in places that you never expected to be going and then works back to a common theme. It’s also very, very good.

While I can’t retrace the path of the documentary here, the overall theme is quite clear: Efforts to destroy authority through technology designed to facilitate group organization create as many problems as they solve. That’s because these technologies recreate pernicious forces that existed in such societies already like the rich exploiting the poor. Start a commune, the strong personalities will dominate the effort and pull it apart. Start a cyber-community with no central authority either and the same thing will likely happen. Unfettered democracy, in other words, can actually be anti-democratic.

So what happens if you destroy authority in the classroom? While Curtis doesn’t take this point in the edtech direction, reeserants does:

Call me old fashioned, but I like to see school, or college, or university as having some sort of authority, that steps aside from whatever is new and cool and brings some kind of critical distance to all the hype being spouted about this, that and the other – hype that nine times out of ten is making someone somewhere a load of cash.

I like to think of education as somewhere that independent thinking is encouraged and the status quo is questioned – this sort of approach is typified by someone like Neil Selwyn who contrasts hype with hard facts. I like the idea of being allowed to challenge orthodoxy; my main worry with the idea of the wikirriculum (or Education 2:0) is that schools will just become echo chambers for whatever fad happens to be in vogue.

I’m actually a little more optimistic than that. Why? It takes me back to my new iPod. There are technologies that I can control. I love those technologies. Then there are machines that form part of a gigantic collective ecosystem that I cannot. If I have the first kind of machines at my disposal, then my life will be better as I will finally have more time to listen to “This American Life.” I will also maintain my ability to challenge any orthodoxy I want. However, if I give up the power to grade my own papers or write my own syllabus to the will of the collective, then my class (not to mention my life) will be subject to forces beyond my control. This will probably leave me frustrated and unhappy.

While I know next to nothing about baptism, my understanding is that it’s at least at some level an act of trust to stick your head underwater and have faith that the person dunking you will let you come up before you suffocate. Curtis has convinced me that my distrust of people who want to dunk me and my class in the digital river of information flowing throughout the world* is indeed well-founded.

I’ll stick to sprinkling, thank you very much.

* Yeah, I know it’s a bad metaphor, but I wanted to post a Talking Heads video so please back off.





Some lovely WPA propaganda.

30 09 2011




Poor Mrs. Drudge.

16 08 2011

My friend Bob Rydell of Montana State told me about this clip, which they’re using at the exhibit he curated for the National Building Museum. The scene is from the “The Middleton Family Visit the New York World’s Fair,” (1939) and the exhibit is on the world’s fairs of the 1930s. The editing is my own, and it actually kind of fits the new theme of this blog:





The functional equivalent of eating through a tube.

15 08 2011

A new option has arisen, called online learning portals, that might make college superfluous. For example, a company like Learning Counts allows students to create portfolios that document their knowledge and skills. College professors examine the portfolios and certify what the students know and what they can do. This can, of course, lead to college credits. But it can also lead to a classic “cutting out the middle man” phenomenon: students bypassing college and taking the certifications directly to prospective employers. After all, in a real sense a college education is merely a means to an end, and if a better means turns up … well, you get the picture.

– Bob Roper, “Online learning tests campuses,” Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, July 31, 2011.

Wow. When I wrote about education as a means to an end I never expected to read someone taking that so literally! Where’s the joy in an online learning portal? Now remember this quote, while I continue this post by discussing a completely different subject…

While I haven’t noted it lately, I may be the only vegetarian in the world who’s an Anthony Bourdain fanatic. No Reservations is pretty much the only thing I watch regularly on TV these days (at least until Fringe comes back) because I desperately want to travel more and because I can treat all the meat-eating on the show as a cultural/historical learning experience.

This is a clip from a recent show where Tony visited the legendary Spanish restaurant El Bulli before it closed:

If you watch to about four minutes in, you’ll see the part where Bourdain notes that the chef, Ferran Adria, really enjoys himself while eating. “I love that you’re having so much fun at your own restaurant,” Tony notes. Apparently, Adria used to eat the ever-changing, 52-course menu each week in order to make sure that the diners enjoyed it as much as he did. This seems like a no-brainer to me since customers were undoubtedly paying big bucks to eat there, but apparently it’s rather novel in the restaurant world.

Like an expensive dining experience, higher education ought to be infused with a lot of customer service and at least a little bit of joy. Learning is not just something we do to get a job. It’s supposed to be fun. You might not like all of the 52 courses you get served during your expensive college banquet, but ideally both the chef and the diner should enjoy the experience.

I’m not a big fan of the student as customer model, but if technology destroys the authority of professors in the classroom to look out for educational matters, perhaps it is appropriate to ask why students should settle for compromises when getting an education that nobody would ever accept while eating out. If you went to a restaurant that cooked your meal in one gigantic pot a thousand miles away, you’d send it back. If they gave you warmed-over versions of last year’s meals, you’d send it back. If they handed you a clicker and said “Press ‘A’ if you want more pepper,” you’d leave the restaurant immediately.

Perhaps you don’t like black truffles. Suppose McDonald’s is your kind of place. That’s fine if it makes you happy. Food is a means to an end too (that end being not starving), but think of all the wonderful dining experiences you’d be missing! If you don’t care about the taste and texture and smell of your food, you might as well get all your nutrients through a tube.

I bet getting your nutrients through a tube would be much cheaper than actually eating if the packets hooked up to the other end of those tubes from your arm were mass-produced. Think of the time that would save! No more trouble finding a place to park! No more sitting around chatting with your friends while they cook your dinner in the kitchen! [Making someone’s meal to order is so inefficient.] No more need to tip the waitstaff to bring your food around! No more need to cook at home will leave plenty of extra time for watching TV! [I could watch even more Bourdain!]

If we’re really, really lucky, maybe someday they’ll figure out a way for us to get all our nutrients over the Internet. Happy happy, joy joy.





Three videos.

2 08 2011

My friend Al Jacobs played these three videos for our TAH teacher colloquium this afternoon. They are all well worth your time.

For instructions on how you can borrow them for classroom use, click here.





Greetings AHA Perspectives readers!

4 04 2011

Greetings to all of you who have come over here from my article in AHA Perspectives. If you haven’t, those of you who are AHA members (and therefore have access to it) should definitely click the above link and give that essay a read.

The subject of my piece is teaching history with YouTube. This is actually my second Perspectives article on the subject. [You can read the first one here even if you don’t subscribe.] The first article was about where to find video for the history classroom. This one is more about the mechanics and pedagogy of how to use them.

When I wrote that first piece in 2008, the whole idea of using classroom video was novel enough that pointing people to YouTube as a source was a good enough suggestion for Perspectives to print it. When that article came out, I tried to get people to went from that article over to this blog to make some suggestions about what videos they use. Perhaps it’s because people are shy or perhaps it’s because the idea of teaching with YouTube was way ahead of its time, but that post has gotten a grand total of zero comments in all the years since I wrote it.

Eternal optimist that I am and knowing that a lot more people now are teaching history with YouTube than they were back then, I think I’ll repeat the same question I asked three years ago:

What are the best YouTube clips for use in the history classroom?

Please offer your suggestions with links in the comments below.





We interrupt this hiatus…

1 04 2011

I ran into Dale Van Eck (the same guy mentioned in this AHA Perspectives article that you should definitely read) here in Charleston yesterday. He promptly informed me that D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” perhaps the most important and disturbing film of all time, is now available in its entirety at the Prelinger Archive.

There’s no way I’m watching it now, but having never seen the whole thing all the way through I’m excite dto download it and begin the process.

PS If you are coming here after reading said AHA Perspectives article, please keep scrolling to the post below this one and answer the question if you can.








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