Reducing my Digital Footprint

Spring cleaning, digital style. I’m reducing my digital footprint a bit, but really consolidating it into a single site which I own and control. I was doing basic cleanup on Twitter this morning: removing people I’m following who have been completely inactive for more than three months. Then I decided to really prune the tree, and get rid of nearly all the people who don’t actually follow me back. Then I decided it made no sense to have tweets out there from years ago. So I removed everything from before 2016.

I tried to do the same thing with Facebook, removing old posts. But they make it much more difficult and slow. It would have taken hours to click, wait, click, wait…and I really don’t use FB for anything anymore. So I deleted my account.

I’ve had dozens of blogs over the years, under dozens of different domain names. In late 2014 I started using WordPress for my personal blog, and then I added an EnvHist blog. Each of them has a premium hosting plan and a special url. Between now and the renewal date of the plans (this summer), I’m going to transition the content back to my own site, danallosso.net.

I haven’t decided how I’m going to organize the info on my site. The blogs will all become part of a single megablog to start. You can find what you’re looking for using Categories and Tags, and there may even be some interesting cross-pollenization between different things that interest me. There’s also a cool rotating tag-cloud on my home page that you can spin to find what you’re looking for.

I’ll leave recent (2016) posts up on WordPress until the accounts expire. But if you’re following me here, consider visiting and rss-subscribing or bookmarking my website.

Ciao!  –Dan

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Communicating Environmental History to the General Public

Here’s something I wrote for my department’s blog:

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Dan Allosso, PhD 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…

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Videos in the iBook

I’ve been devoting a LOT of time, the past week or so, to turning my lectures/textbook into an iBook. I sort of wish there was a generic app that would create electronic books with embedded audio and video. Seems like something we’ve been waiting for a long time. The standard eBook format is just a long column of text with an occasional image inline. Pretty lame, when you think about it.

Maybe it’s easier for a company that controls its OS and user interface to maintain standards that make audio and video embedding more successful. For whatever reason, the only option, if you want to build a textbook that incorporates audio and video, is iBooks Author.

So I’ve been combing Archive.org for Creative Commons videos I can use. Last year I used a few clips from “The Plow that Broke the Plains” in my lecture video. That was a good start. This week I’ve put together a couple of short clips from the early 20th century, on steam-era trains and the Ford Model T. I can slap them on the pages of my iBook chapter on Transportation, and they just play. I think it’s pretty cool.

Here’s the Model T video:

Two New Reviews of American Environmental History, Part One

FrontCoverInternational Baccalaureate Reviewer:

Working in the K-12 environment with IB schools, it is often difficult to find ancillary and supporting curricula that are the unique blend of current topics, deeper focus, and a lexile level that is still approachable for high school readers. Written in a plain style students will find easy to follow, Mr. Allosso’s book is a rare gem for an IB ESS teacher or any social studies teacher looking for an 11th or 12th grade supplementary text that aims to provide an historical context for the environmental reality in America today. Though likely written for a university student, this text has a range of topics that are engaging to K12 students featuring current thoughts on American Environmental history. The bonus is that unlike most official publications, the low price of this paperback edition makes it affordable enough to order a classroom set and justify its use as a companion text.

Highly recommend.

Kevin Furst, IB Educator

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Undergrad US History Survey Reviewer

The field of environmental history is littered with interesting studies that simply aren’t approachable for most beginners. Allosso corrects this problem in the first part of his thoughtful and approachable textbook. Beginning with the Ice Age, he walks the reader through the important role that agriculture and the environment played in the development and evolution of the earliest North American societies. Turning next to European expansion, Allosso illustrates how human beings both act and are acted upon by a variety of factors in the environment. Worth note is his vivid description of the important role that biological factors played in the development and evolution of the American colonies. Indeed, he carefully traces how the spread of disease was the critical factor allowing Europeans to establish the American colonies and consolidate their control over abundant resources that drove the famous triangle trade.

Perhaps just as important, this textbook illustrates the central role that the environment played as catalyst to historical events, like the American Revolution. For Allosso, the creation and evolution of the United States of America in inextricably linked to the acquisition of resources and development of land. He reminds us, for example, that one of the driving factors which doomed the Articles of Confederation was a struggle between various states for control of western lands. Ultimately, the author makes a convincing case that when we focus on the most important events, themes, and factors that shaped American history between 1776 and the coming of the Civil War in 1860, we can not understand them without recognizing the complicated relationship between human beings and the environment. The Northwest Ordinance, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Transportation and Commercial Revolutions, sectionalism, the Trail of Tears, and even the whole notion of American exceptionalism simply cannot be understood without recognizing that the environment has shaped politics, economics, and public policy since European settlement. Because of its clear prose, attention to detail, and accessibility to a broad audience of readers, Allosso’s textbook is the standard by which future American environmental history textbooks should be judged.

Professor Chris Fobare, Utica College

Mapping Common Ground

One of the instructors in the UNSW Environmental Humanities course I’m taking online suggested an article from 2014, titled “Mapping Common Ground: Ecocriticism, Environmental History, and the Environmental Humanities.” The article, written by an international panel of ten authors, explores the relationship between the academic fields mentioned in the title in the hope that by working together, the three fields will find a way to “finally…attain the critical mass…to break out of customary disciplinary confines and reach a wider public.” Although the article makes some interesting points, I think it was unfortunate there doesn’t appear to be an environmental historian among the panelists. Like several Environmental Humanities articles I’ve read lately, “Mapping Common Ground” seems to minimize environmental history in an attempt to make room for its own claim to be a “new way of organizing and disseminating knowledge.”

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By themselves, the article claims, “environmental historians, environmental philosophers, and ecocritics…have failed to reach a wider audience.” Is this true? Is it true for each of these fields to the same degree? For the same reasons? I agree with the authors that the current ecological mess we’re in is “also a crisis of the cultural and social environment,” but I disagree with their suggestion that environmental historians are unaware of culture. Environmental historians, the authors say, “frequently draw on the results of the natural sciences, but they rarely cite ecocritical scholarship or work in environmental philosophy.” I think this is less because environmental historians “need to be jolted out of disciplinary ruts and mindsets,” and possibly more because the discourse in the fields the authors are advocating for has yet to offer much useful material for environmental history.

I know, that’s harsh. But environmental history is already “historicizing” the environment and ideas about the environment, and has been for decades. Although the term “environing” may be new, questioning the “normative dimensions of current environmental practices” really isn’t. The project the authors envision for environmental humanities is largely one that environmental historians have already undertaken. So I think it’s incumbent on the new, enlarged field to identify specifically where environmental history has failed, and how it will correct these failures.

Ecocriticism, as I understand it, might be described as the point of the literary-scholarship wedge in the environmental humanities. Maybe I’m thinking too much like a historian here, “prone to treat texts as documents” rather than focusing on “the uniqueness of how it says what it says,” but I am interested in the way texts “affect[ed] their audiences in the first place.” More to the point, I think in this context the literary scholars may have as much to learn from historians as they have to teach.

But let’s return to the very first claim made in the Abstract of this article, that environmental humanities will solve the problem of “critical mass” and help scholars “break out of customary disciplinary confines and reach a wider public.” While I think no one has completely cracked the code, I also think environmental historians have so far been much more successful creating “usable knowledge” and communicating it to the public.

Actually, I think the article identifies the problem as it seeks solutions. “Disciplined work,” the authors say, “entails…the development of specialized vocabularies that enable scholars to encapsulate entire arguments in a single phrase. This allows for greater generality, precision, and sophistication, qualities essential to good scholarship.” Now we’re talking!

I’m not convinced that serious scholarship requires the creation of impenetrable jargon. I think it’s more likely that success in the academy as it’s now constituted requires barriers to entry, and jargon is a great barrier. But even if we granted that “terminological black boxes” were good things within an academic setting, they’re the kiss of death if you care to communicate with the regular, English-speaking public. And I think the authors are right when they admit that making their insights relevant and compelling to non-specialists “is a task with which the humanities have little experience.”

While I’m convinced that humanists and literary scholars have a lot to offer a broadly defined project of environmental humanities, I think such a field needs to articulate its value add without misrepresenting the work already carried on by the wide variety of people working in environmental history. As the authors admit, “it may not be possible to mint all the gains accrued…into the accepted coin of our disciplinary realms.” And it may not be the most important thing, anyway. In their conclusion, the authors say “It is not enough to assert that history and literature matter and are closely related; it is up to us to make them matter and relate more fluently.” I agree, but I’d add that it’s also up to us to worry a bit less about asserting our value and claiming our space, and a bit more about using our tools to help fix the environmental and social problems we all face.