Environmental History for environmentalists

I've been thinking about less traditional applications of history, than the obvious "get a job in a history department" next step in the regular career path. I've always planned on writing for a
wider public than other historians, but I've been wondering about other places, other people. Lucy will be going to COA next fall, which reminds me that there are environmentalists in the local area, too: over at Antioch.

So I started thinking about how I might pitch an environmental history or rural history course to a place like Antioch, which has a program that focuses on training environmental studies teachers and advocate/activists. It's fascinating, because I think this question challenges me to think about what would people who are not historians care about? In a real sense, I realized, my ideas about putting together syllabi have been unconsciously organized around the idea that I'd be selling the syllabi to history departments, rather than to the end-users (or even, ironically, the students). The question of packaging a course for historians is bypassed, when the people to whom I’d be selling an Environmental History syllabus are not themselves historians, but Environmental people. They wouldn’t care about historiographical in-fights like
Johnston’s gripes about Cronon and Limerick, unless it leads to different action in the real world. So I have to go back, and look at things like Muir v. Pinchot, and ask, does this make a difference in real outcomes? More important, does it illustrate ideas that continue to animate environmental policy debates?

Is there a textbook? Radkau's
Nature and Power? Cronon’s Uncommon Ground? Marks’ Origins of the Modern World?

I think the Horwitz's idea (in
The Transformation of American Law) about how changes happen, illustrated by Steinberg, is important for environmentalists to understand. As is the Jacoby idea that even conservation can be class-oriented, and perceived differently by different classes. Scott, on central planning. Davis, on famine being a political choice. Maybe something specific on Latin America — but maybe not Miller. Maybe Cochabamba?

A comparison of history and culture? Cronon v. Merchant? Or just a Merchant excerpt, as an example of how environment is sometimes used metaphorically, and how this muddies the water?

Big themes:

Inevitability v. Contingency (or even agency)
Environment and Class
Environmental “reality” v. myth and culture
Climax v. Change — implications for responsibility
Globalism as loss of externality

Books I might include:

The Columbian Exchange
Changes in the Land
Nature, Incorporated
Crimes Against Nature
Red Earth
Scott: excerpts from
Seeing Like A State and How Not to Be Governed
Worster: excerpts from
Rivers of Empire
Late Victorian Holocausts
Smil: excerpt from
Creating the Twentieth Century on nitrates
How Much Should a Person Consume excerpts
Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land
Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia
The Power of the Machine


Raup v. Donahue
Cronon: “Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”
O’Connor: “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?”

Primary Sources:

Muir & Pinchot excerpts on Hetch Hetchy
Progressive Conservation and Country Life tracts
Mumford (“Fourth Migration”) v. Urban sanitizers and even Jane Addams
Silent Spring
Omnivore or Defense of Food excerpts
(Other readings contextualizing Antioch’s favorite authors and texts)

Banging away...

Today’s my PhD oral exam, so of course, we were looking at old books illustrated by Arthur Rackham on Archive.org this morning. Steph said, “Hey, that one looks like you blacksmithing!” Okay, I admit there’s a resemblance -- and I’m reminded why I cut off my hair. But I don’t sit on a stool when I’m working!


This print is from
Siegfried (1911). Nice detail of the bellows, the ladle for wetting the coals, the tools and anvil. Looks like Rackham did his research!

Spring cleaning

It’s the first full day of Spring. So of course, it’s snowing outside. But that’s not stopping me from cleaning out the carrel, of books (on my chair) I don’t need to hang onto anymore for Comps.

Technically, I still have Oral Exams on Friday. But I’m not bringing books with me. Anything I can’t pull out of my head, doesn’t count. So, the books are going back onto the shelves.

In a slightly more overall Spring Cleaning, I’ll probably look over my research material, and start figuring out how I’m going to attack that. Once I have the Orals completed, I’ll have a month to put together my dissertation prospectus. I also want to spend part of that month getting myself a little better organized to look for jobs. That means, updating the stuff on the website, maybe putting together a CV and some sample course syllabi, etc. But, first things first: Orals this Friday!

Notes for a writing manual

If “differential impacts” means the same thing as “different effects,” say “different effects.” Even if it’s a PhD comprehensive exam.


Photo on 2011-03-15 at 08.46
I’m spending Spring Break week writing my comprehensive exam essays. Today is day two of this process. I have five questions to answer in writing, and then my examiners get to read my responses next week, and we all sit down and talk about them in the oral exam a week from Friday.

Then, assuming I pass, I’ll enter the weird in-between status known as “ABD” (all but dissertation). But I don’t plan on staying ABD for long. Four weeks after my oral exam, I’ll present my dissertation prospectus. Then I’ll be able to get on with the final round of research and the writing.

The big change that comes with being ABD, is that I’ll be eligible to teach. So I’m hoping to get some summer courses lined up (either at UMass or elsewhere), and I’m looking forward to trying out some of the syllabi I’ve been putting together as I’ve been taking classes, TA-ing for people here at UMass, and reading.

But, first things first. I have a lot of writing to do, in the next couple of days…

Self publishing histories

I’ve been pondering the idea of self-publishing history, and I think the time has nearly come. (This post went to the Historical Society blog today)

Say self-published to anyone over about 30, and the first thought they’ll probably have is “vanity press.” It has always been possible to have a manuscript printed and bound, and there are plenty of examples of useful histories that have been produced this way. Nearly all the “Centennial” histories on display or for sale at small-town historical societies were written by local people, mostly without formal literary or historical training, and published in small lots by local printers or specialist publishers. There were once many more local printers willing to take on “octavo” printing and bookbinding. Dr. Charles Knowlton, for example, self-published his 500-page tome Elements of Modern Materialism using a small printer in Adams, Massachusetts, in 1828 (he bound the volumes in leather and stamped the spines with gilt ink himself), and his infamous birth control book, The Fruits of Philosophy was also produced at Knowlton’s own expense and sold by Knowlton out of his saddle-bags to his patients, until Abner Kneeland began advertising an expanded second edition in The Boston Investigator in 1833.

There are a number of companies specializing in reprinting out-of-copyright books, and many old town histories are for sale at historical societies in these reprint formats. But there are many more stories at these repositories than made it into those old histories, and there are often local historians who work for years at these societies, digging up material on particular families, or on political and social movements that interest them. The market for their stories may be very specific (as in the case of town or regional history), diffuse (as in the case of genealogy), or may be too small to be economically feasible for a standard publisher. This is where self-publishing can change the game.

I’ve been watching the self-publishing industry for several years, and it has changed dramatically. When I wrote my first novel,
companies like iUniverse were just beginning to offer self-publishing packages online. These companies used the newly-developed print on demand technology that companies like Amazon and Ingram were adopting to produce mainstream titles just-in-time, to print their clients’ work. They offered editorial services, marketing packages, and bare-bones “publishing,” if you wanted to do those other things yourself. For a little over a thousand dollars, you could get your book into print.

The objection to vanity publishing has always been that it’s trash. If you couldn’t get a publisher interested in your book, the wisdom held, it did not deserve to see the light of day. There’s some truth to this argument, but I think it was much more valid when the book trade was big, profitable for small publishers, and the business was widely distributed among thousands of firms. Nowadays, a small number of media giants control nearly all of the titles that “move,” as well as most of the backlists that fill the rest of the shelves in bookstores. These companies, studies and anecdotal accounts suggest, are becoming ever more conservative. The costs of launching a commercial title are so high for them that they would much prefer to get a new book from an established author than to take a risk.

Wait a minute. The major publishers, just like iUniverse, Amazon, and Ingram, can print on demand. So, where are the costs? Hint: they’re not in the royalties. The real expenses are pre-production costs and distribution, and overwhelmingly, marketing. This is partly because the publishers’ economic model is still based on bookstores, and the need to put thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of physical copies on shelves around the world. But what about those regional, special-interest, niche-market titles?

There are a number of new small publishers catering to niches.
Combustion Books for anarchist steam-punk titles and Chelsea Green for sustainable living and farming titles like Harvey Ussery’s brilliant The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, for example. But I chose in 2007 to buy the bare-bones package and self-publish. I lined up my own editing (author Terry Davis, whose workshop I was attending, for story; my Dad, a master teacher of language and literature, for line-editing), sent in my file and my check, and they printed my book. That was just the beginning. I quickly learned that having a title, even on Amazon, does not make the registers ring. Marketing, getting the word out, getting people to look for it, took some real effort. Luckily, the internet offers people in niches an incredible opportunity to find kindred spirits, wherever they may be. I found teen-review websites where I could have my young adult novel read and reviewed by actual teens (they liked it), and I found a contest I could enter my book in (which it won). It’s still selling well, five years later.

But back to history. I had a delightful conversation this week with a woman in Maine who has written a memoir that should be published. It has humor, conflict, suspense, local flavor, and incredible human interest. But how to get it into print? Well, the good news is that, since I tried it in 2007, the self-publishing industry has gone through another generation of change. You can now publish on Amazon, Lulu, and a variety of other platforms, with much more format-flexibility than was available a few years ago and completely
free of charge. And they pay much better than they used to back in the early days. Much better on a per-unit basis, in fact, than traditional publishers. If you know what you want to say, if you’re comfortable with the technical end of putting a book together (I like to remind myself that Knowlton and many of the people who published books in the past didn’t have a professional editor, either), and especially if you know who will want the book and how to reach them, self-publishing might be something to consider.