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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

Ryan Dorsey, M.A. Candidate, UMass History

This Friday, the University of Massachusetts Amherst will begin hosting its History Communication Summit to explore how “History Communicators, like Science Communicators,…stand up for history against simplification.” As an historian of science, the conference’s timing and topic could barely be more felicitous. Three weeks ago, scientists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that they had confirmed the direct detection of a gravitational wave. The reports of science communicators ranged from sound clips of the “chirp” to ramifications for the future of science, but they all made one point very clear: this experiment finally confirms one of the major predictions of Albert Einstein’s century-old Theory of General Relativity.

While the coverage on what it means to discover gravitational waves is solid, the coverage on what it means to take a century to make this discovery is not. The journal Nature explains that Albert Einstein formulated general relativity in 1915, Joseph Weber claimed a (false) detection in 1969, and Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse indirectly confirmed the waves’ existence in 1974, winning a Nobel Prize in 1993. The popular science site IFLScience zips through the history in one paragraph: “One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein…thought there were invisible ‘gravitational waves’….For decades…they have never been detected…until now.” And The Guardian reports simply that “all of this follows from a prediction of Albert Einstein’s 100 years ago.”

This historian sits, stewing, “How can this history be so naïve and so sparse!” LIGO’s fact sheet notes that it is the most expensive project ever undertaken by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which has invested north of 1 billion USD into LIGO to date. Two pairs of lasers, aimed at mirrors suspended two and a half miles away, help measure changes in distance that are fractions of a percent of a proton’s width. Scientists in fifteen countries collaborate on LIGO. So do tell this perplexed soul, how is it that “all of this follows” from Albert Einstein, who worked nearly alone one hundred years prior? What does it mean that Four Great Men are the history of the gravitational wave, when 950 people work with LIGO now?

 

Figure 1: Sir Arthur Eddington's photographic equipment being deployed on a racecourse in Sobral, Brazil. Courtesy of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and the Science Museum, London.

Figure 1: Sir Arthur Eddington’s photographic equipment being deployed on a racecourse in Sobral, Brazil. Courtesy of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and the Science Museum, London.

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Emily Esten, History Major; Applied Humanities Learning Lab Fellow

In its second year, the Applied Humanities Learning Lab (AppHuLL) seeks to take dynamic and motivated students and allow them to put into practice humanities skills on a real project. Many of this year’s Fellows are undergraduate students from various disciplines in the Five Colleges. The course is half-career prep and half-project management – two vastly different goals, but both addressed in the four-day intensive. Of the course of January 11-14, we fifteen Fellows went from knowing nothing about the Quabbin Reservoir and its history to standing up as scholars and humanists in our own right.

AppHuLL Networking Lunch (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

AppHuLL Networking Lunch (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

Our first day, we walked out of the classroom daunted by what seemed an impossible task – I almost felt like I was invading a mostly-forgotten history protected by the few surviving persons. But we were welcomed – by great mentors Cheryl Harned and Mark Roblee, and most importantly, by the community members and leaders who helm the memory of these places today. Between field trips, conversations, activities, and workshops, we accomplished so much in learning where we stood and what we needed in order to move forward.

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Chelsea Miller, Public History M.A., UMass History

This blog post originally appeared on The Harold, and is part of a series of essays, opinions, and reviews written by students, faculty, and staff of the Institute for Curatorial Practice.

As an intern for the Institute for Curatorial Practice, I am particularly struck by ICP’s ability to bring a wide range of collections into one conversation. I saw this in action during the ICP’s summer program. I received a graduate fellowship that enabled me to attend the five-week program and to lead a co-curated digital exhibition, BODY [IN/AS] LANDSCAPE. My teammates and I created an exhibition that explores how human forms and activities transform landscapes, and what new landscapes are produced by an artist’s intervention in the landscape. The exhibition draws from several collections, including the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Hampshire College Special Collections, Smith College Museum of Art, the University Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Mead Art Museum. While these collections are part of the Five College Consortium, they remain separate. But the ICP opens up the possibility of bringing them together. After this summer, I felt inspired by the concept of digital exhibitions.

The medium of a digital exhibition prompts questions about the possibilities and anxieties surrounding digital reproductions. Since the emergence of mechanical means of reproduction, specifically photography, there has been debate over whether the reproduced image can substitute for the original work of art. But what I hope to argue is that the digital reproduction is a useful tool for learning, teaching, and preserving objects.

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“…The stories we craft, and the stories visitors to exhibitions both bring to, and craft from, their encounters, can expand empathy and create transformative experiences, provide new insight and catalyze action.” Marla Miller, Professor, UMass History

The New England Museum Association (NEMA) held its annual conference in Portland, ME, on November 4th-6th. This year’s theme was “the language of museums,” and many sessions explored the importance of communication. Students, faculty, and alumni from the UMass Amherst Public History program attended the conference, and several of us maintained an active presence in the conference’s Twitter conversation, #NEMA2015 (click the link to see our tweets on Storify).

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

Many sessions that we attended focused on making museums inclusive spaces that combat systems of oppression, but there were also sessions on visitor engagement and photographing museum collections. Other members of the UMass Amherst Public History cohort attended sessions on objects and emotion, creating empathetic experiences, legislative advocacy, statewide collaborations, having difficult conversations in museum workplaces, and graphic design.

Here are some reflections from faculty and students on #NEMA2015:

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Mike Jirik, PhD Candidate, UMass History

Last week, the Graduate History Program hosted Edward Baptist (Cornell University), a distinguished historian of American slavery. During his visit, Professor Baptist had lunch with graduate students from the History and African American Studies departments before giving a public lecture. Both of the events centered on his newest book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The book has garnered considerable attention among historians and general readers, partly because of a controversial review in the Economist.[1] Needless to say, this was a much anticipated event for an aspiring historian of slavery and abolition. The conversation during the luncheon was simultaneously enlightening and invigorating, and the public lecture was a major success. After reflecting on those events, I felt compelled to share some thoughts on the lecture, the conversation at the luncheon, and the general importance of Professor Baptist’s work.

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Emily Esten, Class of 2016, UMass History

I interned at the John Brown House Museum (JBH) in Providence, RI this summer. Interning in a small historic house museum allowed me to be a jack-of-all-trades. I opened and closed the museum, followed and guided tours, attended meetings, met with docents, assisted at events, create education packets…essentially, a little bit of everything.

The John Brown House Museum in Providence, RI

The John Brown House Museum in Providence, RI

But the most important task I dealt with on a day-to-day basis was manning the front desk. As the first person patrons would see prior to entering the museum, I handled all their questions. Over the course of the summer, I had a running FAQ list of statements I had heard far too often, such as:

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