Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.
Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

DH as self-defense.

If you’re interested in what I was doing for most of this month, you can read about it here. [Yes, I’m the goofball wearing a baseball cap in the back of the group picture.]  The short version?: I spent two weeks in Arlington, VA learning about the digital humanities in general and digital history in specific thanks to the nice folks at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This was an experience I was hoping to have the moment I heard about it for two reasons: 1) I made a commitment long ago not to be that professor lecturing from yellow lecture notes when they get old. [And I mean yellow because the white paper turned yellow, not because they wrote their notes on yellow paper.] and 2) The Center for History and New Media always struck me as an organization that handles technology right. Just look at Zotero, for example.

So rather than just summarize our entire two weeks with all the tools and articles about them (all of which is still posted here indefinitely), I wanted to make a broader point about the labor politics of DH. It seems to my newbie mind that the digital humanities are more interested in equipping professors with the tools they need to do their jobs better (or at least differently) than they are in creating robots that will do their jobs for them. I heard nary a peep about MOOCs in two weeks, but lots about how to teach history in ways that no MOOC could ever duplicate. Indeed, starting with getting a site from Reclaim Hosting* (the revolutionary nature of which I explained to the group summarizing this article the best I could), continuing with tools like StoryMap or Scalar and culminating with planning projects of our own, we learned how to drive the tractor rather than let the tractor drive us off our land.

Of course, I’ve read the same complaining that you have about DH soaking up all the money and attention while the rest of us soldier on teaching history or English or whatever old style. I still sympathize. After all, it’s not like every class I teach is going to become all digital humanities all the time overnight, or even ever. But I’ve come to believe that the Digital Humanities are a good thing not just because they are a different way to teach, but because they are an excellent way to highlight the importance of professors in general as higher education transforms itself into whatever it will eventually become.

* By the way, thanks for making the transition to the new blog site with me. This is a friendly reminder to change your book marks and blogrolls too if you haven’t done so already.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Digital Humanities, Teaching, 0 comments

No myth.

This is #2 on Josh Kim’s list of 8 Myths about MOOCs:

Myth #2 – The people involved in MOOCs think that open online education will replace traditional higher education:

The MOOC movement originated and is being evangelized mostly by higher ed insiders. One of the goals for edX reads: “Enhance teaching and learning on campus and online”. Everyone that I speak with who is involved in creating, teaching, or supporting open online learning is motivated to find ways to leverage MOOCs to improve teaching and learning for our enrolled students. The MOOC community is committed to improving and evolving, not replacing, our system of higher education.

That’s awesome, Josh, but it’s not the “MOOC community” that I’m worried about, it’s people like this guy:

BvF6BWCCQAAtgc4.jpg_largeHow many administrators at potentially MOOC-consuming institutions show up at big, international MOOC meetings? And if they do, how many of them will remember the message of open education when the rubber meets the road?

Posted by Jonathan Rees in MOOCs, 0 comments

Digital history? Moi?

Here at “Doing Digital History” in lovely Arlington, Virginia we’re currently working on ways to design and justify our respective digital history projects and courses at our home institutions. I’m fortunate enough that I won’t have to justify mine, but I’ve been working out the syllabus for a digital, experiential learning archives-based course for the last week and a half (before I start teaching it exactly two weeks from today).  If you want to see what it looks like at the moment, then click here.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, 0 comments

In which I compare professors to the Joad family…

This is actually the second time that I’ve compared professors to characters from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  In the first post, I didn’t know a darn thing about MOOCs and you can see that in my argument with Stephen Downes in the comments there.  Now I do, and I think the argument still holds water. However, I also think the excellent editing at Chronicle Vitae helped me make the argument better this time.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, MOOCs, Technology, 0 comments

Icebox v. refrigerator.

Our DH seminar homework for tonight is to write a brief blog post considering how we might use text mining in our upcoming digital history projects. Unfortunately for me, a project about an underwater mining town doesn’t seem particularly text mining friendly.  Don’t get me wrong, I found, for example, this particular tool to be something potentially really useful as a way to get control of my growing corpus of Harvey Wiley literature.  However, from my perspective, text mining is probably the least useful DH strategy that I’ve encountered here in the last week and a half or so.

The one time I did to some text mining may suggest why.  This is the Google Ngram for “refrigerator v. icebox” (with “ice box” thrown in just for good measure)*:

Refrigerator vs. iceboxI first did this Ngram while writing Chapter Six of Refrigeration Nation in order to confirm something that I already knew from my research: that before the advent of the electric refrigerator, what we now know as “iceboxes” were called “refrigerators” and that icebox is a term invented to differentiate boxes full of ice from the appliance that now runs in everybody’s kitchens. The fact that the terms “icebox”and “ice box” basically come out of nowhere precisely during the time when the first electric refrigerators were being developed basically confirm that fact.

Apparently, confirming things you already think you know is the best way to use text mining. I think that’s a good thing, as I’m not sure how I ever would have footnoted this in the book. In fact, how COULD you footnote this in a book if the corpus keeps changing?

But it is a pretty good trick to play with students that the cultural historians probably adore.

* Click the picture if you’re interested in a clear look.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, Refrigeration, Refrigeration Nation, 0 comments

“And freedom tastes of reality.”

If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high,
You’d laugh and say ‘nothing’s that simple’

– The Who, “I’m Free,” 1969.

This is one of those little essays that comes so easily that it practically writes itself.  Its inspiration is this post by the great Nick Carr:

“Sharing” is a nice word, but…there’s a deep current of cynicism running just under the surface of the sharing economy. The companies that operate the clearinghouses, and skim the lion’s share of the profits from the aggregate transactions, present a very different face to the folks driving the cars and renting out the rooms than they do to their investors and entrepreneurial peers.

Carr goes on to quote a rather scary-sounding book called The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers:

Cults will flatter you. They will make you feel special and individual in a way that you are unlikely to have felt before. They will celebrate the very things that make you feel different from everyone else; the members will get to know you deep down, and they will love you for what they find. And you will love them.

Is that good or bad? Carr also mentions “a vast and ready pool of workers…who don’t qualify for the extensive and expensive benefits and protections provided by law to regular employees.” Hmmm…sound familiar?

Carr is actually writing about Uber and taxi drivers, but the whole post might as well be about academia.  Just last week, Daphne Koller told the folks driving the cars and renting out the rooms listeners of that Slate podcast in a quote that I already transcribed:

What I expect will happen to these colleges is that the professors will rather move up the value chain so instead of standing there and delivering content they will use that material much as one uses a textbook today as the starting point for a discussion.

Moving up the value chain?  Most of us don’t have that kind of freedom. Maybe it’s because we have classes that are too big for good discussions. Maybe it’s because we have far too much material to cover otherwise. More importantly, what if our employers don’t let us move up the value chain? Will Daphne Koller hire all those professors that MOOCs do displace at Coursera? Somehow I doubt it.

Ironically, the people who are most likely to have the freedom to replace their own content with other people’s MOOC lectures and not lose their jobs are the people at fancy schools who are, as a result of being at fancy schools, the least likely candidates to do so. As a result, Daphne Koller is left trying to flatter, coax and cajole faculty into using her products even though it’s obviously not in their best interest in the long run.

So the next time your local administrator or the well-meaning person over at your school’s IT office or any current or former member of the Stanford CS Department tells you that MOOCs are our friends, remember that nothing really is that simple.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in MOOCs, 2 comments

At least Clayton Christensen is honest about his intentions.

So I finally listened to the podcast with Daphne Koller that Audrey Watters described as 17 minutes of “Gah!”  It was indeed painful.  However, masochist that I am, I listened to it more than once in order to do some transcribing for you.

The most amazing part came at the very end. The designated pro-tech Slate reporter interviewing her, Marvin Ammori, told Koller:

“I do want to say, though, that I think Christine [Rosen, the designated technoskpetic Slate reporter, who also interviewed Koller] and I agree on one thing: that neither of us believe you when you say you’re not going to destroy mid-tier and lower-tier schools.  That we believe firmly that even though…you can’t quite say it, but I don’t think either of us believe you when you say you’re not going to eventually just radically change the way education is done in America and I think that’s a great thing. I can’t wait to get rid of a lot of the excess fat in the education system and I think that Christine thinks that it’s not a great thing and you can deny it all you want but neither of us believe you.”

Koller’s response to this?  Silence.  Yes, the podcast ended right afterwards, but if Koller actually wanted to deny any of that statement she certainly could have done so. They never would have cut her off in mid-response.

Of course, Koller did say exactly the opposite in more than one place earlier in the podcast.  For example. she declared at one point:

“I think higher education is expanding in the sense that the audience that we’re reaching is considerably larger than what has traditionally been viewed as the target audience of higher education. There is an enormous number of people out there that can benefit from access to higher education for whom traditional avenues such as going back to college for two years for residential experience to get a masters degree are just not a feasible alternative because they’re working adults. And so effectively we’re opening a brand new market.”

Later, she proclaimed:

“I don’t think we’ve ever argued that this should be a substitute for the kind of intimate, face-to-face education where people really bounce ideas off each other and there’s a real dialogue.  What I expect will happen to these colleges is that the professors will rather move up the value chain so instead of standing there and delivering content they will use that material much as one uses a textbook today as the starting point for a discussion.”

What this means then is that Marvin Ammori essentially called Koller a dirty liar to her face (or at least over the telephone).  If somebody called me a dirty liar to my face, I’d object.  Wouldn’t you?  But Koller didn’t.

I think that’s because Coursera has always tried to stand on both sides of this street simultaneously. They want to have their cake and eat it too by simultaneously appealing to the disrupt education crowd and looking like the corporate equivalent of Albert Schweitzer by bringing higher education to refugee camps.

For that game to work, their audience has to completely ignore the way that power is distributed across academia and across American politics in general.  Consider the really terrifying story (also in Slate) about a new conservative plan to destroy the “college cartel.” MOOCs got a mention:

“Under state accreditation, higher education could become as diverse and nimble as the job-creating industries looking to hire,” Lee (or his ghostwriter) explains. “Authorized businesses could accredit courses and programs to teach precisely the skills they need for their employees. Apple or Google could accredit computer courses. Dow could accredit a chemistry program, and Boeing could craft its own aerospace engineering ‘major.’ ” In other words, relax regulations, and let a thousand flowers bloom.

Even if conservatives have been the most eager about rethinking accreditation, there are plenty of moderates and liberals who are keen on the idea as well. President Obama himself has embraced the concept: In 2013, he called on Congress either to tweak the current accreditation setup or establish “a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal aid based on performance and results.” Theoretically, that would give online programs a path to federal recognition. In left-wing think-tank land, meanwhile, David Bergeron of the Center for American Progress has advocated for creating an accreditor that could award students course credit for those free MOOCs.”

Now that’s not an additional market – it’s the heart of the student body for those lower- and mid-tier schools that Marvin Ammori is so keen to disrupt. More importantly, it’s where all the tuition dollars are, which is why Ammori is willing to call Koller a liar for acting as if she’s not interested in that same market.

The role of college professors in all of this is to serve as gatekeepers for defining what higher education is. Is it just a piece of paper which says that you’ve been exposed to a certain amount of content or is it a process that reflects deeper learning? Koller acts like it’s the second but every material interest of her company suggests that they’d prefer it to be the first. This explains why Coursera wants to lead professors on with promises of spending more time doing the kind of teaching that we really love like lambs to the slaughter. Hopefully, we faculty are smart enough to see through this tactic. Marvin Ammori certainly is, which explains his response right at the end of 17 minutes of “Gah!”

At least Clayton Christensen is honest about his intentions.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in MOOCs, Technology, 1 comment

A total cop out.

So my Doing DH 2014 homework for tonight is to write a short blog post about using non-textual sources in history classes. Since I’ve written two articles for AHA Perspectives on precisely that subject, I’m just going to link to them here and here.

Now I’m going to go back to playing with Omeka.


Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, 2 comments

Welcome to the new “More or Less Bunk.”

While I’m still importing and rebuilding some of my teaching materials from my old WordPress,com sites, I think my new blog via WordPress and the lovely people at Reclaim Hosting is now ready to open. So please reset your bookmarks, rss feed or however else you may follow this blog to the URL: “”

I’ve decided to leave all my old posts at the old “More or Less Bunk” at the old site rather than import them here.  For now, I’ll be posting the digital humanities-related homework I have here. As the nice folks at CNMH are the ones who have helped me through this transition.  Before too long, I’ll get back to your regularly scheduled MOOC-bashing.

In fact, I heard Daphne Koller said something kinda outrageous

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, 0 comments