Posted by: Kenn Hermann | January 1, 2008

The Origin of “Airline”


Many of the words we use for new technologies have their origin in earlier eras and very different contexts. Those words have now been transformed to represent new technological phenomena, while the original meanings have been forgotten completely. We fail to notice this transformation because we believe the new word is original. (I’m not sure what to call this process of transformation; it is not a metaphor or analogy.)

I stumbled across one of those words just the other day, one that I had never thought of before as having this kind of history. I was reading a 19th c. overview of the surveying of that portion of northeast Ohio known as the Western Reserve. One of the surveyors noted the difficulties of maintaining an “air-line” through the dense forests. The context made it crystal clear what he meant: a straight line through the air unimpeded by any obstacle, something essential for accurate surveying. We might now use a phrase like “as the crow flies” to mean a straight line or the shortest distance between two points. Thus was born the modern term “airline” to refer to a new machine that flies in a straight line through the air unimpeded by any obstacles.

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Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 27, 2007

Another Way that Technology Make Us Dumb

My friend Dave Westerlund contributed the following story in a ‘comment’ to my recent blog on “Another Egregious Example of Technology in the Classroom Gone Amuck.” It is too good to lie buried in a comment so I am posting it here as a blog.

A couple is on vacation when their GPS system breaks down. Thankfully, they were just watching an old movie on their cell phone that showed someone pulling into a gas station to ask for directions. There was a station across the street. They walked up to the counter and asked the owner if he could beam over a map to their blackberry.

‘Excuse me? What are you looking for?’

“Well, we are trying to get to Los Angeles.”

The owner pulls out a paper map and begins to point the way, describing landmarks to look for on the way. “Oh, and there’s a great pie shop right at this junction. And don’t stop at the service station down the road from there. He dilutes his gas.”

The owner looks up at the couple who are thouroughly confused. He describes the whole route again to them, but they still look lost. “Do you want to write it down?” He hands them a pen and paper. But they now seem even more distraught.

“Here. Just take my map.”

“Hmmmm, I used to know how to read maps, but that was back in 5th grade.”

“Well what happened?”

He holds up his broken blackberry.

“Can you call us a taxi??”

Thanks, Dave.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 27, 2007

Being Overwhelmed By the Printed Page

It seems that scholars have been overwhelmed by books for centuries, even before the printing press. Listen to what Vincent Beauvais had to say in the 13th century: “Since the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory do not allow all things which are written to be equally retained in the mind, I decided to reduce in one volume in a compendium and in summary order some flowers selected according to my talents from all the authors I was able to read.” Which of us haven’t tried such devices to bring some order out of the havoc we have created with too many fleeting thoughts, piles of half-read books, and scrawled notes that we ‘must’ remember to jot down somewhere permanently?

Another eloquent statement about this condition came from the prolific pen of Rev. Samuel Miller, the Presbyterian pastor and scholar, who wrote the ambitious and still authoritative,A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, (1803). If you can imagine it, Miller’s inspiration for this survey came from a sermon he had preached at the end of the century that summed up the achievements of the 18th century. (How many pastors do you know who would or could sermonize on the full array of intellectual and cultural high-points of the past century?) His intended 4 vol. retrospect had to be pared down to 2 vols. in the press of his duties. Miller would go on to be a founding faculty member of Princeton Seminary. In the last chapter of the second volume, he sums up his observations. Among those of most interest on printing and books:

The last century is pre-eminently entitled to the character of THE AGE OF PRINTING. It is generally known, that this art is but little more than three centuries old. Among the ancients, the difficulty and expense of multiplying copies of works of reputation were so great, that few made the attempt; and the author who wished to submit his compositions to the public, was under the necessity of reciting them at some favourable meeting of the people. The disadvantages attending this state of things were many and great. It repressed and discouraged talents, and rendered the number of readers extremely small. The invention of printing gave a new aspect to literature, and formed one of the most important eras in the history of human affairs. It not only increased the number, and reduced the price of books, but it also furnished the authors with the means of laying the fruits of their labours before the public, in the most prompt and extensive manner. considering this art, moreover, as a great moral and political engine, by which an impression may be made on a large portion of a community at the same time, it assumes a degree of importance highly interesting to the philanthropist, as well as to the scholar. . . .

The last century is entitled to distinction above all others, as THE AGE OF BOOKS; an age in which the spirit of writing, as well as of publication, exceeded all former precedent. Though this is closeley connected with the foregoing particular, it deserves a more distinct and pointed notice. Never, assuredly, did the world abound with such a profusion of various works, or produce such an immense harvest of literary fruits. The publication of books, in all former periods of the history of learning, laboured under many difficulties. Readers were comparatively few; of course writers met with small encouragement of a pecuniary kind to labour for the instruction of the public. Hence, none in preceding centuries became authors, but such as were prompted by benevolence, by literary ambition, or by an enthusiastic love of literature. But the eighteenth century exhibited the business of publication under an aspect entirely new. It presented an increase in the number, both of writers and readers, almost incredible. In this century, for the first time AUTHORSHIP BECAME A TRADE. Multitudes of writers toiled, not for the promotion of science, nor even with a governing view to advance their own reputaiton, but for the market. Swarms of book-makers by profession arose, who inquired, not whether the subjects which they undertook to discuss stood in need of further investigation; or whether they were able to do them more ample justice than their predecessors; but whether more books might not be palmed upon the public, and made a source of emolument to the authors. Hence, there were probably more books published in the eighteenth century, than in the whole time that had before elapsed since the art of printing was discovered; perhaps more than were ever presented to the public, either in manuscript, or from the press, since the creation.

This unprecedented and wonderful multiplication of books, while it has rendered the means of information more easy of access, and more popular, has also served to perplex the mind of the student, to divide his attention, and to distract his powers. Where there are so many books, there will be less deep, original, and patient thinking; and each work will be studied with less attention and care. It may further be observed, that the abridgement, compilations, epitomes, synopses, and selections which are daily pouring from the press in countless numbers, and which make so large a part of modern publications, have a tendency to divert the mind from the treasures of ancient knowledge, and from the volumes of original authors. Thus, the multiplicity of new publications, while they would seem at first view, highly favourable to the acquisition of learning, are found, as will be afterwards more fully shown, hostile to deep and sound erudition. . . We can only imagine his groaning and lamenting at the profusion of words and dearth of intellectual depth that has been aided and abetted by the internet and . . . blogs. For goodness sake, stop reading my blog and get back to some ‘ancient’ author who can dispense ‘sound erudition.’

I was delighted to discover this quotation at the Eighteenth Century Reading Room, a blog of the Mina Rees Library at the City University of NY Graduate Center. They have a treasure trove of other enticing excerpts from 18th century rare primary sources.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 20, 2007

The Art of Teaching Reading in 1660

How difficult is it to teach a child to read? Based on several indicators, it must be very difficult — and very expensive — to teach children to read since we are clearly are not doing it well, despite the millions we now spend on sundry ‘new’ programs. Several threads on this subject have recently come together for me. First, the National Endowment for the Arts recently released a report on the alarming fall-off in reading among young adults over the past decade; I have written a blog, “Reading IS Fundamental,” reflecting on that report.

Second, a student in my “Technology and Society” class this semester wrote a term paper on the expensive computer-based “Success for All” reading program that her school district recently purchased. They spent $175,000 for the initial program. That was just the beginning. The board soon discovered the undisclosed and hidden costs of buying the reading books for each grade level and the trade books required for the lesson plans. Costs to implement other parts of the program have continued to climb. There have been numerous additional cascading unanticipated costs and consequences of purchasing this program. Of course, such an expensive system required an extensive restructuring of the entire school, curriculum, and teachers to insure “success for all.” To date, the program has only managed to raise reading scores minimally across the district.

“Success for All” is only one of many such programs that got in line for the billion dollars that Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” ladled out to school districts to raise reading scores. The qualifying programs were supposed to be rooted in rigorous scientific research that had proven to be effective. I have good news: an effective, rigorous reading program was demonstrated over 350 years ago!

One of the many delights of being an historian and a bookseller is that I often come across old books that still speak to our present concerns. I recently acquired a facsimile copy of Charles Hoole’s A New Discovery of the Old Arte of Teaching Schoole that he wrote in 1660. Hoole, Samuel Hartlib and John Comenius, were pioneers in reforming education in England during the mid-17th century. Hoole’s writings on teaching in petty schools, grammar schools, and Latin schools were widely praised and followed. A petty school taught young boys, beginning as early as four or five, to read, write, and ‘cast accounts.’ Having mastered those skills, they were then ready for grammar school. Hoole believed that children as young as 3 “had great propensity to peep into a book, and then is the most seasonable time . . . for him to begin to learn; . . . though perhaps then he cannot speak so very distinctly . . . .”

Perhaps Hoole has something important to teach us about the simple art of teaching young children to read — if we have ears to listen. No expensive computers, gimmicks, or other bells-and-whistles; just plain, sane, tried-and-true methods that were successfully employed all across England. Literacy rates were exceptionally high throughout England in the 17th century. Similar methods were employed in New England schools in the 17th c.

Hoole’s chapter headings: Chap. I: How a childe may be helped in the first pronunciation of his Letters; Chap. II: How a childe may be taught with delight to know all his letters in a very little time; Chap. III: How to teach a childe to spell distinctly; Chap. IV: How a child may be taught to read any English Book perfectly; Chap. V: Wherein children, when the Latine tongue is thought to be unnecessary, are to be employed after they can read English well. I have scanned the first 28 pages of the text to give you a feel for the simplicity and wisdom of his plan.

It will take you minutes to read through and master his method. After doing so, tell me again why a school district needs to spend over a quarter million dollars for a program that fails to deliver on its promises to dramatically improve reading? How ignorant have we become of the successful educational methods of our ancestors that we believe we have to invent new ones over and over and . . . .? Charles Hoole promised to teach all manner of young children to read well, using nothing more sophisticated than cards, blocks, and other small toys. He actually delivered ‘success for all’ of the thousands of pupils who were taught with his method — 350 years ago.

Given the expense and difficulty of teaching children to read, it is a wonder that I — and millions of other children — learned to read quite well in the 1950s with only Dick and Jane books and the prodding of Mrs. Olson, my first-grade teacher. What did Hoole and Mrs. Olson know that modern reading teachers do not?

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 20, 2007

Where Are the Bright University Men?

All of those decades ago when I was in elementary school, it was quite common for girls to outperform boys in the elementary grades. We gradually pulled even with them, by and large, by senior high. My college and graduate school experiences showed more men doing very well academically. That seems no longer to be true. Now we hear a good deal about the disquieting trend in the secondary schools that sees young boys falling further and further behind young girls in academic achievement. That same trend seems to have shown up at the university level over at least the past decade, based on my own experience in the classroom over many semesters.

This semester was the most remarkable in the large number of women who got A’s from me. In one class of 20 online students, I had 5 women who got A’s and no men; the highest man got a B+. In another class of 50 classroom students, I had 2 women who scored an A- and 3 who scored an A; there was one man who got an A. In a third class of 30 students I had 3 women who came away with A’s and one man. This is a trend that has been building over many semesters.

One large contributing factor, it seems from my experience, is the comparatively large number of women in mid-life who are beginning college or returning to finish a degree that was interrupted by raising a family. These women are highly intelligent and extremely motivated. I can point to only a few men over that same time span who were as bright and motivated. If you are a professor, what is your experience with gender differences in academic achievement? If you are a male or female university student, what has been your experience with gender differences in academic performance? The sociologists out there can offer their hypotheses, guesses, or research data to explain this trend.

Check out this related article in the NYT on “Giving Disorganized Boys the Tools for Success.”

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 13, 2007

High-Tech Embraces the Environment in Akron, Ohio

There is wonderful environmental news — and a sweet smell — coming from Akron, Ohio.

You just flushed the toilet. End of story . . .maybe for you, but not for the city and the environment. The city of Akron, a moderate size city in Ohio, with a population of just over 200,000, estimates that it processes 1.2 million gallons of sewage per year for itself and several surrounding communities. Treating its wastewater and composting the solids costs the city approximately $8 million dollars annually.

The city just announced that it is going high-tech to lower energy costs and close the environmental loop in processing its sewage sludge. Schmack BioEnergy LLC, a partnership formed by KB Compost , the current manager of the city’s composting plant, and Schmack Biogas of Germany, has installed a $7 million biogas generator near the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The generator, the first of its kind in the U.S., will transform the sewage sludge into methane gas through anaerobic decomposition. The methane gas will, in turn, produce enough electricity to power the sewage treatment plant, biogas operation, composting facility, and 325 homes in the area. Initial plans call for the biogas facility to process 5,000 tons of sludge per year. If this testing proves successful, the city will move toward processing all of the 15,000 tons of sludge it produces annually. Taxpayers and the environment are both winners in this bold move. Flushing their toilets will now be even better for Akron’s taxpayers and environment.

(See and hear the full story: Akron Beacon Journal and WKSU)

Let’s hope this biogas generator is the first of many such facilities in the U.S. We have a very long way to go to catch up with European innovative energy technology that works in harmony with the environment. Schmack Biogas is the result of a simple dream that three German farmers had over a decade ago for turning their farmyard waste into renewable energy. It already has 200 facilities up and running in Europe and Asia, with more in the planning. There are surely such dreamers in this country.

The possibilities for transforming the multiple organic waste streams in our country into renewable energy with biogas generators are significant. In addition to municipalities, just think about installing biogas generators on the thousands of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (the millions of cattle, hogs, chickens, and turkeys in those facilities generate mega-tons of manure) across the nation. Wouldn’t it make much better economic and environmental sense to put incentives into the current farm bill to create renewable energy with these generators than to pursue the folly of ethanol? How much organic waste is generated by food processors every day? How much organic waste is landfilled every day? There is no reason why technological visionaries in this country cannot make biogas generating technology part of the solution to our energy needs and environmental health.

. . . and now I really must get back to those exams I’ve been putting off all morning.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 13, 2007

Slogging Through Those Final Exams

Here I sit chipping away in fits and starts at this mountain of both electronic and paper final exams for the umpteenth year. (yes, I am aware of the mixed metaphors between title and first line, but somehow one image is not sufficient to capture the angst of this time of year.) I can’t help but be curious about how my colleagues endure their grading marathons. How many exams can you grade at one sitting — after the first day, after the third day, after the last day? How many hours a day can you stand it? How many different excuses do you invent for yourself to take a break? How many agonized groans do you exhale per exam? How many Advils per day do you need? How many different chairs and sofas do you sit in throughout the day to break the monotony? How many walks do you need per day to clear your head? How many times a day do you swear off ever doing this again? How many wake-ups till your very last grading? How many times has your spouse threatened to leave you if they hear that kind of language again? How many different phrases do you have in your lexicon for saying that “this exam/term paper is ______________”? How many times have you pondered what these exams are contributing to the well-being of your students? How many turn to the last page of an exam to find a scribbled note, saying “thanks for a great class, prof,” and break into a satisfying smile? Just curious . . . .

…and yes, dear students who may be listening in, many of your professors do have these moments grading final exams.

Now, after writing this blog what else can I do to put off the inevitable return to the stack? Hmmm, what’s on PBS tonight? Oh, that’s right it’s fund-raising week with the Very Rev. Wayne Dyer. All those positive feelings flowing through me. Breath d-e-e-p-l-y and exhale s-l-o-w-l-y. Grading exams seems so much easier now that I have gotten in touch with my Inner Nurturing Self.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 12, 2007

Another Egregious Example of Technology in the Classroom Run Amuck

If you have read any of my earlier blogs on technology and higher education you know that I am critical of the hype that is pushing technology into every nook and cranny of higher education. This hype is, in my judgment, responsible for the lavish spending on technology that is returning only negligible improvements in the quality of our education. The pace at which universities are uncritically adopting technology has seemingly increased dramatically in the last decade. Unfortunately, the university seems as incapable of thinking critically and clearly about the appropriate role of technology as does the broader society.

Just today a friend alerted me to yet another egregious example of the mindless use of expensive technology in the classroom. My friend teaches at a university with a medical school. Students in the medical school are required to buy a hand-held wireless device for their classes. One of the uses is for taking tests. As he explains it, students were given a paper test in a classroom. But rather than using a pencil to fill out an objective test form, they logon to their class website and enter their answers electronically via their device. He had just learned from a colleague that students had figured out how to beat the system quite easily. They were given x amount of time to take the test in the classroom and enter their answers. However, if they finished the test early, they could leave. Some took the test with them out into the hall or remembered the questions, checked their books for the correct answers, and substituted the correct answers on their wireless devices before the time limit expired, all from the sanctuary of the hallway. Apparently, there was no professor or proctor present in the classroom or hall to monitor these students. When the professor was told that some students were cheating, she ‘professed’ to be unable to do anything to prevent them. One can only imagine what short-cuts these students will devise when faced with a life-and-death crisis in the emergency room.

Apart from the cheating and the irresponsible conduct of the professor, this appears to be another case where an immensely expensive technology has replaced the simple and inexpensive procedure of marking an objective scorecard with pencil. Edward Tenner refers to this as the inevitable recomplicating effect of much of our electronic technology. Why does a university have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to perform what has always been done very efficiently, inexpensively, and securely? When universities pour this kind of money into this kind of technology, why does it surprise anyone that tuition is rising faster than the rate of inflation at universities all across the nation. What is driving this? Has the university’s IT department done its due diligence in checking the grandiose claims made by the vendors of these expensive systems? Has it counted the true cost of these systems? And where are the provosts and the deans? What philosophy of education underlies and promotes this mindless grasping at novelty?

Yes, it may be ‘cool’ to use a hand-held device to automatically score and grade tests, but for what larger academic Good? What have those cheating students actually ‘learned’ by taking exams with these devices? Now that the professor is free from the drudgery of proctoring and grading exams, what Greater Academic Good is she pursuing? There are some technologies that actually make us dumber; this seems to be yet another one of them.

Jacques Ellul is tapping us on the shoulder from beyond the grave to remind us that this is exactly the direction that society in the grip of La Technique is moving.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 8, 2007

Helping Professors (and Students) Figure Out Averages

How difficult can it be to figure out a student’s average? If you do an online search for “calculate grades” you will get a raft of websites that ‘help’ professors and students figure out their grades. You will find many formulas, long detailed explanations, and elaborate spreadsheets, all designed to do the simple task of figuring out a grade. My guess is that if many of my students stumbled across these pages, their eyes would glaze over while trying to follow the complicated math formulas long before they discovered what their average was. Mine sure do.

I remember all of those years ago when I worked with the spiral-bound green (they were always green, weren’t they?) gradebook in which you entered student grades in those teeny, tiny boxes and spent literally hours figuring out final grades by hand based on weighted percentages. If a student wanted to know their average at any point in the semester? Out came the pencil and head-scratching.

I have tried to simply the process for myself and my students. Years ago I discovered the magic of a 1000 point scale — and Excel. Multiplying by 10 eliminates decimal points and weighted grades. I began to assign points for each element of the course grade that reflects its percentage of the final grade. Thus,

  • exam #1, 200 points, 20%
  • exam #2, 200 points, 20%
  • attendance, 150 points, 15% — # of absences = x number of points
  • weekly homework, 150 points, 15% — each assignment = y number of points
  • final exam, 300 points, 30%

Each semester exam is returned with the number of points earned, e.g. 190 points for an ‘A’ exam. It seems easier to tell students that they have earned 190 points than telling them that their 95% is worth 20% of their final grade. One of the bonuses of this scheme is that I now have twice as many points to distribute on the exam than I would for a typical 100 point exam. Likewise, there are 15 homework assignments worth 10 points each (each week is worth 1% of the final grade); it seems easier for students (and me) to understand that they have accumulated 80 points through 9 weeks than to tell them that their 89% average is worth 9% of their final grade.

Students know their current average going into the final by adding up the points earned in each element and dividing by 700 (points earned divided by points possible). They also know exactly how many points they need to earn on the final exam to keep their current grade or boost it. That somehow seems easier to understand than for a student to wonder what percentage she has to score on the final, which is worth 30% of her final grade, to raise her current average of 76% to 80%. That would be easy to figure out. She now has 532 points (76% of 700); that means she would need 268 points (a B+/A-) on the final to earn a total of 800 points, the minimum for a B-.

Students trying to figure out their grades can easily convert their current weighted grades to the 1000 point format. E.g. if an exam is worth 100 points and counts for 25% (.25) of the final grade on a 100 point scale, that means the exam is worth 250 points on a 1000 point scale (100 x 2.5). If the student got an 80 on the exam, it would be worth 200 points on a 1000 point scale (80 x 2.5). See how easy it is?

Of course, creating a simple Excel spreadsheet streamlines the entire process and dramatically cuts the time needed to determine final grades. A few simple formulas, copying them for entire columns, and presto, all done for another semester. It is certainly easier for me to figure students’ final grades by doing the simple addition than figuring weights, e.g.: total points = automatic percentage; 789 points = 78.9% = C+. No fancy formulas, just simple addition does the trick. Long gone are the cumbersome gradebooks, calculators, stubby pencils, and head-scratching. This system is simple, quick, and accurate — and all done without an advanced degree in math.

I am pleased — and surprised — that this blog has, apparently, helped so many people.

While recently perusing The Technological Society I stumbled onto Ellul’s intriguing analysis of how the dissolution of existing medieval social groups and traditions in England and France prepared the way for the rise of la technique. In this chapter Ellul puzzles over the conditions that gave rise to the sudden emergence of technical development in the latter half of the 18th c., primarily in these two countries. He narrows those conditions to five: 1) the maturation of a long history of technical know-how; 2) an hospitable economic environment; 3) the growth of population; 4) the emergence of a clear and conscious effort to move society in a technical direction; and 5) the dissolution of the multiple number of social groups that gave medieval society its cohesion. I had failed to notice this important analysis in earlier readings.

Rather than summarize his analysis, I will let you read the beginning of his discussion for yourself. The remainder of the chapter carries this analysis forward. Ellul calls our attention to how the shattering of medieval social groups led to the emergence of modern individualism and its progeny, the totalitarian State and La Technique. Once ‘freed’ from the resistance offered by the dense interlocking network of many social groups and centuries-old traditions, the modern individual was easy prey for the totalitarian State and La Technique that yearned to arrange those atomized individuals into the most efficient economic and technical system. ( Ellul’s critique of Statism is intimately related to his critique of La Technique throughout his corpus.)

One implication of his thesis must surely be that it is no surprise that technical civilization has reached its highest level of achievement in the US, where the individual is exalted, the atomized Self is cast adrift from any ‘natural’ social anchor and, humans are subject only to the iron law of technical efficiency. The Common Good? Mediating social structures? Small town or city that has lost a major manufacturing plant? Lost your job in the global reshuffling of work? The claims of environmental stewardship? Care for the public’s health and well-being? All contrary to the dictates of La Technique.

There are many echoes of this process in late 18th c. and early 19th c. American history in which artisan/craft republicanism vainly resisted the disintegrative forces of the new models of industrial production; similar developments spawned the Chartist movement in early 19th c. England. See an earlier blog on this theme.

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