Communicating Environmental History to the General Public

Dan Allosso, Ph.D. Candidate, UMass History

I was too far away (northern Minnesota) to attend last week’s events, but communicating history to the general public is a topic that interests me, so I thought I’d share some recent experiences.

Before I entered grad school, I spent a couple of decades in the computer industry. My first experiences with the internet involved text-based services such as CompuServe and The Well. I’ve been on the sharp side of “disruption,” selling semiconductors for an industrial distributor paranoid about “disintermediation” and doing systems engineering for Silicon Graphics while their proprietary platform was being end-run by folks rendering movies like Shrek on Linux clusters. But mostly I’ve watched—and helped—people use technology to evade hierarchy and find their markets and affinity groups more easily and directly.

For a few, the web has meant new opportunities to earn a living. For most, it has been about the satisfaction of finding peers who share our enthusiasms and are interested in what we have to say. For others, it has brought a scary breakdown of traditional authority systems. For writers, web-based technology has created a new world of possibilities, but also a new set of frustrations. There are plenty of places on the web where aspiring authors can contribute content. Not as many where they can reap rewards beyond name-recognition for their efforts. And in many cases, the structures of the past continue to hang on, attempting to control credentials and access as they always have.

Whether or not you believe “information wants to be free,” it’s fair to say the broadband web creates opportunities to challenge the status quo. MOOCs have been poorly implemented in America, but look at FutureLearn in England! High school textbooks, the most influential interface between academic history and the general public, are a nightmare. This is certainly a place where a little disintermediation could go a long way. It’s also a place where the battle is often about ideology and always about big money (for publishers, not authors).

Of course, it’s much harder to self-publish and find readers for a new textbook than a new novel. I’ve been turning the American Environmental History course I’ve taught online for the last few years into a textbook, so I’ve had some conversations with librarians and teachers. My main interest is getting Environmental History in front of more people than the few dozen who might take an upper-level History elective at each of the minority of American colleges that actually offer a course. So, what’s the best way to do that? I went through the proposal process with Oxford. A split decision among the readers resulted in no contract, and I basically lack the patience to go through the process again and then wait an additional year for the book to be produced.

Cover of Dan Allosso's new textbook, American Environmental History: Part One

Cover of Dan Allosso’s textbook, American Environmental History: Part One

So I’ve gone ahead and put it out there on my own. There’s an eleven dollar print version on Amazon, and a free iBook version on the Apple store. The iBook interface allowed me to add a link to every image in the book, taking readers directly to more information or the source of the image. And to add videos explaining key ideas. And did I mention, it’s free?

It’s been interesting, working on version after version of this material over a period of years, trying to make it more relevant to readers’ lives and also more understandable and compelling. Since my goal is to attract the general public to Environmental History, style and tone are important concerns. But even more, I think writing for the general public revolves around the “so what?” Unlike academics, regular people don’t seek objectivity and neutrality in their history—and they generally don’t believe it when authors make the claim.

That doesn’t mean that accuracy and truthfulness fly out the window. But I think a substantial part of the reading public has a much better sense of narrative bias than we often suppose. Readers want authors to take a position, and they’re up to the challenge of evaluating it and deciding whether they agree. At least, a portion are. Some are going to stick with Bill O’Reilly’s and Glenn Beck’s type of history, and there’s nothing to be done.

So what happens if readers or high school teachers discover my free stuff out on the iBook store, or my free videos on Vimeo and YouTube? Have I made them interesting enough that people will watch, even if they aren’t required to, to get a grade? Will online teaching allow people to begin building their own portfolios of credentials and skills, bypassing the authority of degree-granting institutions? Will readers and viewers accept material produced by an ABD grad student rather than a famous authority or a team working under the Oxford or Pearson banner? Only time—and trial and error—will tell.

Editor’s Note: Visit Dan Allosso’s blog about environmental history at EnvHist.net

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