I got exciting news yesterday: I’m becoming a computer science professor! I’m alright. Nobody worry ’bout me. It’s just for three days.

You see, my friend JP is teaching a CS class for pre-college Freshmen this summer and it’s going to start with getting them Reclaim Hosting sites, then teaching them how to control their own domains. Poritz, who codes his own pages like most people write prose, is so far ahead on this he actually needs help explaining this simplified process to ordinary people, so I’m coming in for the first three days to help talk the students through this process. Ironically, I’m hardly the greatest WordPress web designer in the world. [Indeed, THE Jason Jones owes me an e-mail or at least a post on improving one’s WordPress skills so I can redesign this site again as practice.] Nevertheless, over the last few years I’ve become quite good at modeling “Let’s all learn this together” behavior.

This is necessary because this whole concept of “Digital Natives” is complete rubbish. Yeah, I know that’s a rather common sentiment (at least in well-informed circles), but I’d actually go one step further: A lot of old people like me are a lot closer to being digital natives than college students are. After all, I was on a college campus for most of the Nineties. I actually learned (and have now completely forgotten) Gopher in an 80-part e-mail course. By which I mean, this gopher:

Not this one:


Or this one:

So I literally have decades of experience being uncomfortable on the Internet.

I’d argue that this is a good thing. One of the many things I learned writing a book with Poritz was the origins of the fake word “app.” Yes, I already knew it’s short for “application,” but what JP taught me is that the whole point of applications is to perform a particular function for you so that you don’t have to worry about it. By making things more easy, you’re more likely to hand over your cash, your data or perhaps both.

As a stereotypical liberal college professor, the whole “Fake News” thing from last year scared the Hell out of me, and would have done so regardless of the outcome of the election. Since the Internet is so important to everyday life and is already (for good or for evil) taking over the college classroom, I’m committed to helping students understand how to think critically about something that’s inevitably such an important part of their lives. With an epidemic of fake Founding Fathers quotes perverting our politics, the relationship between this project and history professing should be obvious.

Or we can all be gophers and climb back into our holes and wait for Bill Murray to blow up the golf course for us. Pardon me if I prefer to be more pro-active.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

Repeat after me: “You are an expert in your own teaching!”


So I have an announcement: Next year I will be the faculty fellow at CSU-Pueblo’s Center for Teaching and Learning. First you go for the free food. Next thing you know they give you a job. Well, not a job exactly. The reward is one course off to work on bettering my online survey course and to help convince other faculty to employ useful online teaching tools. Here’s my first piece of free advice for everyone on campus: Don’t be like either of these guys:

On the second day of the workshop, Mr. Bradbury had an aha! moment. Stace Carter, a freelance instructional designer, told the group the story of a philosophy professor who insisted on bringing his dog along to a video shoot for his course. Mr. Carter showed a clip in which the professor, Mitchell Green, reads a passage from a book while sitting by a stream. The dog distractingly digs around on the ground and then licks the professor’s face, all while Mr. Green continues reading aloud, unfazed. The roomful of professors at the teaching workshop erupted into laughter.

Mr. Carter admitted his first instinct was to reshoot the video. Instead, he and the professor just went with it. “People loved it. They begged for more, saying they can’t wait for next week,” Mr. Carter told the group. What comes through in the video, imperfect as it surely is, is a sense of authenticity.

I love dogs. However, your dog isn’t gonna make or break your online course. No, scratch that. If your students care more about your dog than the material, your decision to teach with Fido might actually break it for you. Imagine for a moment that you brought your dog to your in-person lecture. Everyone there would be laughing and happy? Would they learn any more? I don’t think so. They’d just remember that there was a dog in class one day and he licked the professor’s face. Why would doing the same thing online be any different.

Why do people take such bad advice? Here’s the problem in a nutshell:


Professor goes into an online class training session, assumes he has everything to learn and becomes susceptible to any old suggestion.

It’s not hatred of dogs here that motivates me here. It’s my well-known hatred of “flipped classrooms.” While the dog lecturer isn’t flipping the classroom in the conventional sense since he’ll be teaching entirely online, it’s still a class that’s dependent on videotaped lectures to get content across. Apparently, some teaching and learning specialists still think taping your lectures is educational magic:

“The traditional style of classroom is one where it’s a full-on lecture for the entire time, and there’s some level of information transmission that happens there, depending on whether students are awake,” said Kevin Barry, president of the group and director of the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Notre Dame. “But the processing of that information happens outside of class. What the research shows now is that if we can move that processing into the classroom, for at least part of the class time, we’ll get better results in terms of learning. ‘Flipping the classroom’ is the term.”

You think people will pay more attention to you lecturing when they know the professor’s not watching AND checking e-mail or Facebook at the same time is just a click away? I think not. Shoot, if there’s anything I’ve learned from like 50 of my edtech tweeps it’s that if you want to teach online well, you need to design your classes around what the Internet does well. Don’t just move your existing old course online and hope for the best. In that case, you’re much more likely to make it worse than the better. Having just watched this webinar is currently stuck in my mind. Most historians who use that program, it seems, use that tool to have students mark up texts together and work out the problems in real time. Try doing that with pen and paper! {If I had decent wifi in my classroom building, I’d be doing it myself, but that’s a complaint for another time.]

The moral of this story (if the title isn’t a big giveaway) is that you are an expert in your own teaching! Don’t let some teaching and learning “expert” convince you to do something just because it’s easy or because “studies” suggest that it might work. Have confidence in yourself and your experience. Most importantly, feel free to experiment. We all know that failure is just another word for learning when it comes to our students and the same is true for faculty too. If you don’t believe me, then look at this GIF very closely:


Now read the title of this post over and over again until you actually believe it.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

Career highlight.

My favorite museum in America interviewed me about refrigerators and refrigeration.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Refrigeration Nation, Refrigerator, 1 comment

What if the adventure chooses you?

I was reading those e-Literate guys, Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill, write about personalized learning at edSurge the other day. Oddly enough, I was writing my own little account of the same phenomenon for the book I’ve been working on at the same time. While what follows obviously owes a lot to Audrey Watters, I still thought I’d drop in the first draft of this section of Education Is Not an App for the sake of diversity of opinion and so that this blog doesn’t go completely dead before the book comes out. [I’ve hyperlinked the material that originally came from the web and omitted footnotes.]

ELIZA was a computer program written by Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT between 1964 and 1966 that simulated a psychotherapy session. Type a question into the program, and ELIZA would create another question based upon the language in the original question. For example, if you wrote something along the lines of “My mother is making me angry,” the computer might respond with a question like “Tell me more about your mother.” Despite ELIZA’s simplicity, people using it tended to quickly get entranced by the opportunity to talk about themselves. Weizenbaum himself was deeply concerned that people were being fooled into thinking that the machine actually cared about them.

Computers have gotten a lot more sophisticated since the 1960s. As a result, the kinds of conversations that they can carry out have gotten more sophisticated too. “The holy grail of learning is personalized or adaptive learning,” explained Anant Agarwal of edX in April 2015. “This form of learning is what you might experience from an excellent personal tutor who is able to tailor your individual experience. In many ways, adaptive learning can be compared with those old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books. At each step in the learning process, the user is given multiple options that satisfy his or her level of comprehension, style or direction. They may all lead to the same place (mastery of the material). but the path can be very different and structured for a particular learner.” While Agarwal mentioned this in the context of edX’s MOOCs, there’s no reason that this technology has to be scaled to thousands of people at once. It would, at least in theory, work just as well with twenty students as it would with twenty thousand.

Of course, advocates of this kind of technology in the classroom will tell you that it is not intended to replace teachers. In an Inside Higher Education article about work being done at the University of Wisconsin – Madison on what researchers there have dubbed “machine teaching,” one of the principle investigators told the reporter “this will not minimize the teacher or faculty member role, but would help to optimize the teacher’s time, so he or she could spend the least amount of time necessary on a subject before every student fully understood it.” Unfortunately, the professors who develop this technology have no power over exactly how it gets employed – especially if it ever gets licensed by private companies. Arguing that automation will free up workers to concentrate more meaningful work is a common argument in Silicon Valley. As the author Nicholas Carr explains, “high-flown rhetoric about using technology to liberate workers of masks contempt for labor.”

Look at this situation from as administrator’s point of view. If they buy these expensive computer programs, where will they get the money to pay for them? At cash-strapped schools the inevitable justification will be because it can save labor costs. Computerized teachers, computerized scoring – these days computers will even tell students whether they’re on the most efficient path towards graduation, thereby eliminating the need for advisors. Sometimes it seems as if every aspect of modern universities that can be mechanized has been mechanized. Why would actual teaching be any different?

Making this kind of switch depends upon advocates of technology changing the definition of what education is. The classes where we attended college depended upon prolonged interaction between the instructor and the students. Even in the largest classes that we took, professors took questions before, during and after their lectures. If we were feeling shy, there was ample opportunity to visit professors or our teaching assistants in office hours to work through whatever problems we had in the material. Our papers were graded by human beings who explained why we earned the grades we did. It is through these kinds of exchanges that the most intense learning happens, the ones where habits of mind are set and where inclinations develop into skills that students can employ not just in other classes, but for the rest of their lives (long after they’ve forgotten what their undergraduate professors’ names happened to be).

Personalized learning, the pitch goes, allows professors to spend less time doing things that others can do better (like lecture), you can spend more time helping students learn. Unfortunately, like Lucy and Ethel in that chocolate factory back in the 1950s, it is easy for your employers to speed up your line by giving you more students – particularly if you work in an online setting where the size of the classroom is no longer a limiting factor. In this way, unbundling the professor’s job limits the contact between the student and their instructor. By limiting the contact between students and their instructor, unbundled classes have to focus on how much content a student remembers rather than the kinds of skills that they develop since testing for those skills requires more labor, not less. Anyone who really cares about teaching should consider that outcome a shame.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Publications, Teaching, Technology, 5 comments

My favorite part is the Edgar Allen Poe joke.

Maybe the Atlantic will let me write about education issues for them some day, but until then there’s this essay about my love for refrigerator magnets (featuring an appearance by my actual fridge).

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Publications, Writing, 0 comments

“You got so much to do and only so many hours in a day.”

From start to finish (minus another book in the middle) it took thirteen years to get Refrigeration Nation into print. The problem was deciding the level of focus that I wanted. I was drowning in material long before Google Books got large enough so that I could have spent the rest of my life trying to read everything ever written about the ice and refrigeration industries. But since there hadn’t been another book published on this subject since the early-1950s, I opted for a long relatively shallow history that offered a little bit about most of the things that I had researched rather than any kind of deep dive.

This left me with a lot of unused material. Some of that unused material went into this:

Yes, Refrigerator has arrived. It’s not just a cool-looking book. It looks like an art book to me. I expect to see it in small independent bookstores on a rack with all the other cool books from this series any day now.  Then I’ll go buy myself an expensive cup of coffee.

I hadn’t expected this when noted Renaissance Guy Ian Bogost recruited me for this assignment after reading one of my MOOC diatribes and seeing that I wrote about refrigeration. What I did expect was that this would be my chance to write about a lot more than the history of refrigerators, and it is.

At one time, Refrigeration Nation was going to have a Chapter Nine about the present. A lot of that stuff is in here. So is my experience walking around Lowe’s and Home Depot the summer before last and staring at refrigerator tags.  And so is everything that learned window shopping for refrigerators on [Yes, Amazon sells refrigerators. How? They call you within a few days to set up a delivery window. And of course they specialize in the REALLY expensive ones.]

I also devote even more space to the question of why American refrigerators are so darn big. Among the characters making appearances in this book are William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Mr. Freeze and former Obama Energy Secretary Stephen Chu. This ain’t exactly a conventional history book (in fact, it’s not really much of a history book at all), but writing it really was an awful lot of fun.

Coincidentally, I just handed a manuscript to my editor at Hopkins a week and a half ago for another closer look at refrigeration.  How We Used to Get Ice gets into greater detail about the American ice industry and even covers a few aspects of refrigeration history that weren’t in either of these other books because this subject is still just that wide open.  That book is much more scholarly than Refrigerator (in some ways more so than Refrigeration Nation even), but I’m still hoping antiquarian types obsessed with the ice man might want to read it. After that, I have one more thing to publish about refrigeration – an article on refrigeration and mortality for an economics journal co-written with my brother. Then I think that’s it for me and the cold, at least from a publishing standpoint.

So what’s next?  I’ve been very slowly working on a food history-related biography for a very long time now, but the going has been very slow because getting to the Library of Congress where his papers are is so hard. There are almost no funds for research in DC.  Furthermore, this guy has so many boxes in his collection that I can CamScanner everything in sight for a whole day and only make it through five boxes because you still have to read like crazy to decide what documents you want to shoot in the first place.

So I’m gonna simplify. Instead of being the refrigeration and food history and edtech guy, I think I’m just going be the history of technology guy.  Period.  I have two more chapters of the edtech book that I announced here to write before our February deadline, then I think I’m going to try my hand at something completely different  – a general history of the electrical grid in America.

I’ve actually developed a great fondness for the subject already just working with my brother since he has to be able to zero out the health effects of electricity in order to isolate the health benefits of refrigeration.  What were the health effects of electric ovens, fans and electric light?  Did electricity save jobs or cost them?  I don’t know…yet.

Yes, the history of electricity in America has been done, but as far as I know not with an emphasis on the social impact of this technology and not by me. I’m going to write it better.  I’ll make it interesting enough so that my Dad (whose favorite thing in the world to do on weekends was to read 700-page presidential biographies) would have enjoyed it.

I think I already understand what this decision could mean. One of the great things about this Bloomsbury experience is that they hired a book publicist for all the Object Lessons series. You’ll see links to the fruits of her work (at least her work for me) in this space over the next few weeks. How am I ever gonna go back to the farm now that I’ve seen Paris? My goal for the future is to get an agent, a decent advance, a couple of fellowships and then to sell books to the masses – with an occasional edtech-related diatribe thrown in so that I don’t feel left out of all the fun.

And with all the extra hours I get from only writing one book at a time, maybe I can enjoy living a little more.  As much as I love all my readers here, I gotta say that this not blogging very much thing has already done wonders for my outlook on life.  After all, being outraged two or three times a week takes an awful lot of energy.

* Oddly enough, there is already a new general history of refrigeration out since Refrigeration Nation came out in 2013 and a new one coming very soon. Great timing, huh?

Posted by Jonathan Rees in How We Used to get Ice, Personal, Refrigeration Nation, Refrigerator, 0 comments

Bullet points. All I got is bullet points.

I just came back from two weeks on the road, and am more than a little bushed.  However, there are a few things I want to share here:

*  If you haven’t seen it already, this is my latest for Vitae on the importance faculty organization.

*  I just wrote this for the Academe blog about what I was doing on Monday.

*  Speaking of the AAUP, I am now officially a District One representative on the AAUP’s national council.  [I’d link, but they haven’t updated the website yet so you’ll just have to take my word on it.]

*  Yesterday, I got the first blurb for Refrigerator:

“Does life exist without refrigerators? For most of us, the answer is no. How this common kitchen appliance achieved its indispensable status in less than a century is an amazing tale filled with surprising twists and unexpected connections. Refrigerator is a delight to read. Bravo!”

— Andrew F. Smith, Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America

The book will be available in September.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Books, Personal, 0 comments

Academic survival literature.

My version of academic survival literature is now up over at Vitae.  Warning: It’s kind of depressing, but then again so is academia these days.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academia, Publications, 0 comments

Wrapped up in books.

Posting here has obviously been sparse lately. While this space is hardly going dark [Imagine the thought of me ever shutting up!], I can now tell you why the frequency of posting is going to get worse before it gets better. You see, people are actually paying me to write stuff. No, I’m not just talking about Chronicle Vitae. I still hope to make my once-a-month quota there and post links here (like my last one, the link to which I haven’t posted until now). I’m talking about two actual, honest-to-God publishers.

The first will actually be my third refrigeration-related book, after Refrigeration Nation and Refrigerator (which is with the editors right now). Happy as they are with my earlier work, the Johns Hopkins University Press has commissioned a deeper look at the American ice industry between 1880 and 1930. It will be called How We Used to Get Ice. Rather than a monograph (which I did already), this will be a textbook-style narrative describing the many (mostly simple) technologies that the American natural and artificial ice industries relied upon until the electric household refrigerator finally put them out of their misery. This is all part of my accidental strategy to make the most out of my thirteen years of research as much of the stuff that ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor for Refrigeration Nation really is worth a book of its own. Moreover, the great thing about Johns Hopkins is that they actually edit your work! I am a much better writer for the Refrigeration Nation experience and expect to learn much more writing for them with a different audience in mind.

What’s that you say? You’re here for the edtech, not the ice? Well, I’ve got something for you too! Way back during the Year of the MOOC, my friend, colleague, fellow Princeton, NJ native and occasional guest poster, Jonathan Poritz, was trying to get me to pitch an anti-MOOC book. “I’m a historian!,” I protested. “MOOCs are just a passing fad!” Well, MOOCs were, but the automation of higher education certainly isn’t. Therefore, I finally said I’d do a book about that if JP agreed to write it with me. He is not only an expert on things I know nothing about (like STEM teaching and OER), he provided what I think is a most-excellent title: Education Is Not an App: The Political Economy of University Teaching in the Internet Age.*

Our publisher, thanks to Terry Clague recruiting me off Twitter (or at least really, really strongly encouraging me to put in a proposal) will be Routledge. What I particularly like about this choice is their international reach. American higher education may very well be too far gone, but if we can help save higher ed anywhere else in the world from those evil-natured robots then everything will all be worth it.

So you can see why posting here will be sparse. When I’m not teaching (three rather than four classes per semester going forward, thank goodness) or living my actual life, I’ll be alternating between one project and the other.** While the research is basically already done for both of them (my plan is not to plagiarize my old blog, but to use the links there as evidence for a new, longer-term analysis) anybody who’s written any book knows how time-consuming it can be. Therefore, for the foreseeable future I’ll only be posting links here for other work (like at Vitae) or blog when I really, really can’t shut up about something. Knowing me, that’s probably more than a few times in the not-too-distant future, but a lot less than in the recent past. I want to have the manuscripts for both books done in about a year, and shockingly enough (at least for an academic) I actually like to keep deadlines.

Nevertheless, keep your RSS readers pointed at this space and you may still get an occasional rant in pre-published form, and, of course, much more when the books are turned in. And of, course, there’s always the lazy person’s friend for projecting their thoughts into the world, otherwise known as my Twitter account.

* One of the things that cracks me up about this subject is the contrast with my online friend, the incomparable Audrey Watters. She’s a journalist who’s writing what we all know will be a kick-butt history of automated education. I, on the other hand, am an historian who aspires to write about a similar subject as journalism. To be exact, JP and I are thinking of this as a kind of guidebook for faculty who aren’t paying attention to edtech matters rather than a history or just one long rant.

** I even have another traditional historian’s project that’s going on hold until these two contracts are fulfilled. In the meantime, if anybody would consider introducing me to their agent, I’d love to show them what I have on that already.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Books, Personal, 1 comment

We’re History.

We’re History is basically the successor site to the dearly departed blog of the Historical Society. However, Heather Cox Richardson (who is not the only mastermind of this thing, but the one I know best) has higher aspirations. She wants to make it the go-to place for quality historical content with a mass audience on the old WWW.

So naturally when Heather asked me if I wanted to be a contributor I said, “Where do I sign up?” The first product of that gig is up now, and (of course) it’s on the history of the household refrigerator. Come to think of it, I think I might keep on writing in the history of technology mode there because somebody has to do it, don’t they?

Why don’t you go there now and take look around? And if you happen to be an historian, consider contributing yourself.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in History, Personal, Refrigeration, 0 comments