Optimal Annotation?

What’s the optimal amount of annotating?

I’m planning to use Hypothes.is to have my students annotate readings and discuss their reactions and interpretations with each other online, this summer and fall. During the summer session I’m teaching an online “Readings in American Environmental History” course, so any discussion of texts we would do would necessarily be online. But I’m not particularly thrilled with the experiences I’ve had trying to run online discussions in my university’s LMS (D2L), which seems particularly ill-suited to the task. Maybe if we had something available like Slack and Canvas I’d be more excited about trying to do discussions in the shell. Even so, I suspect I’d be leaning toward using Hypothes.is directly. And in my fall classes (three in person, one online), I’d like to grow beyond the model I’ve been using, where the students’ written responses to readings are only visible to me. I think posting responses that their peers will read and respond to could be an incentive to more thoughtful engagement with the material. It will also set a baseline of sorts and may tend to raise the bar a bit as students see the efforts their peers are making. And beginning a discussion in Hypothes.is may make the transition to in-person discussion in class smoother and easier.

One issue I’ve encountered as I’ve begun preparing to assign web-based readings is, how much prior annotation is optimal for a reading I’m going to ask my students to highlight and annotate? There are several possible approaches, which each seem to have their pros and cons. My first thought was I would go with a well-annotated source, such as the famous 1962 Doug Engelbart essay, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” which I was considering assigning in my fall course, “History of High Tech: Computers and Communications”. According to Hypothes.is, this essay has 408 annotations, including nineteen I made myself. Earlier this year, the essay was the subject of a formal annotation event sponsored by Gardner Campbell and the Doug Engelbart Institute and featuring luminaries such as Howard Rheingold (see Gardner’s video conversation with Howard here). I was personally excited to read the annotations and comments of these folks and eavesdrop on their conversations regarding Englebart’s ideas. I threw some thoughts into a couple of these conversations, and I did manage to find several points to comment on, where I thought there were gaps in the conversation that had been had already.

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I was impressed with the ideas raised by the annotation group, and I suppose I was a bit gratified that the format of the project not only allowed me to add my own comments that would be visile to the previous annotators (a core feature of Hypothes.is), but how the project page includes a feed of “Latest Annotations” that currently lists five of my own made yesterday. Will this feed (or will the notification feature in Hypothes.is itself) lead to some of these previous annotators seeing and responding to my comments? That’s an exciting possibility. But is it a level of exposure I want to impose on my students, the first time they use a tool like this?

Another heavily-annotated volume I might use this fall is Robin DeRosa’s Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, published as a Pressbook in 2015. I could use this as a source of readings for my World History course like the excerpt from Columbus’s Journal of the First Voyage to America. Once again, assigning this version of the reading in my class will help my students understand that they are part of a much wider community of readers and learners working on and responding to this text. But…is there already too much here? The passage currently has 244 annotations. As I read through them, some seem very insightful and some seem less so. There are sections of the text that are heavily commented and others where whole paragraphs go by without a word. What effect will the annotations and the gaps have on my students? Do I want their reading and responses to be influenced (determined?) by a previous group of students? Would I learn more about their engagement, responses, and gaps in reaction if I assigned my students a new, fresh version of the passage?

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Maybe I’ll give my students links to heavily-annotated versions of some documents, to serve as examples; but then assign them a fresh version to read and annotate in the class. This would mean, though, that I’m denying my students the opportunity to participate in this wider community of scholarship. Their contributions will not become visible to other scholars; their comments on annotations will never be visible to the students who originally annotated the text. No conversations will ensue. And to the extent I use “disposable” versions of readings housed within the LMS, these annotations and conversations will disappear at the end of the semester and won’t even be available to the students themselves to revisit in the future. This seems like the type of situation I really want to avoid. Almost as bad as the “inclusive access” online rental models the publishers seek to impose.

So maybe the solution is to use the power of OER to remix an open but outward-facing anthology of my own for my classes, where all the open-licensed material I’m assigning exists in a fresh form, but in a form where annotations will accumulate as I teach the courses from semester to semester. This provides a bit of continuity and a potential for conversations across semesters and student return to previously-read texts, but it doesn’t overwhelm my students with so much prior annotation that it seems impossible to say something meaningful about the reading. Maybe later in the semester or in more advanced courses, once students are comfortable with annotation, we can move out to more public venues.

If people reading this have already solved these issues to their satisfaction, I’d love to hear about it! Comment via Hypothes.is! Thanks, –D

 

 

 

Weekend reading via Hypothes.is

A couple of the most valuable features of Hypothes.is, for me as a reader, are the ability to easily look through my list of annotations to see what I’ve been reading and pull it together into reflections on that reading. That’s what I’m doing this morning: taking a look at the notes I’ve taken as I’ve read several articles this weekend and seeing what I can learn from that. The second valuable feature is that I can do the same thing with the annotation feeds of other people. That allows me to follow the breadcrumb trails of others who are interested in the same sorts of issues, which expands the discoverable material and potentially begins conversations about that material and the issues we found in it. This can be a two-way street, as I discovered when I began following another Hypothes.is user (gowellja) and commenting on some of his annotations, and he not only responded but started doing the same.

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So what were some of the things I ran into this weekend? Inside Higher Ed ran a story a week or two ago about publisher Wiley buying ed-tech company Knewton, which prompted a response by Rajiv Jhangiani about the distinction between openwashing, where publishers pretend to be embracing OER while really locking resources behind access paywalls, and open-wrapping where publishers provide “value-added services that map onto OER.” My question about this is, aren’t publishers who do this merely shifting their focus from a desire to “eat the lunch” of OER authors to an even broader desire to displace the instructors who normally create and provide the “value-added services” that wrap around textbooks? I assume Rajiv (who is famously outspoken) was trying extra-hard to be nice. But my immediate reaction to open-wrapping is to consider expanding the scope of my CC licenses to include NC, which hopefully would prevent a publisher from wrapping my content into a format that would try to disrupt my role as an instructor.

From there I followed a link that led me to Amy Collier’s essay on “Not-Yetness” which she describes as a “space that allows for emergence.” I like the idea that collaboration happens in this “not-yet” space where the object hasn’t quite hardened into its final form. I’m going to start experimenting with “publishing” Pressbooks OER texts before they’re 100% done and then encouraging students to annotate them with questions and comments as I use them in my classes while I continue to build them. For example, there’s an evolution from a series of lectures to a survey textbook – but why shouldn’t that evolution be visible to the outside world and a bit more collaborative. Rebus seems to be doing something similar with their textbook production projects, but in a highly organized format I find a bit off-putting. Maybe I’ll become more comfortable with their organized collaboration over time, but maybe this more student-centered approach is an alternative until then.

From there I moved on to looking for texts to use in my “History of High Tech” course this fall. I went looking for Chris Hughes’ NYT article, “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook” after hearing Kara Swisher’s May 10 interview him on a Recode Decode bonus episode. I’ve already listened to the audible version of Roger McNamee’s book, Zucked, which I think highlights a lot of the important issues. I’m planning to talk about these present issues at the end of the semester, after tracing the growth of the personal computing and communications sectors that enabled these unanticipated problems. I’ll also be referring a lot to Jaron Lanier for not only historical perspective but a sense that the outcome we got was not inevitable. This led me to Hypothes.is user gowellja’s annotations of Engelbart’s seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect” which mind-blowingly was written in the year of my birth. This article had been on my radar along with Bush’s “As We May Think” which dates all the way back to the end of WWII and will probably be a starting-point of my course. It’s fun to know that others are following similar threads and having interesting thoughts about these texts.

Gowellja had also commented on an EdSurge article a couple of days ago about the Gates Foundation’s attempt to measure the value of college. He made what I thought was an interesting point about measurability, and we had a little discussion about that in back-and-forth responses to his comment. I was also interested in the article’s observation that often “rankings have focused on the input side of the equation, not the output.” I think the Gates approach is often incredibly ham-handed, but not necessarily a bad question to be asking, esp. as digital education begins disrupting brick-and-mortar schools. Can we be more explicit about the value we add as educators?

Continuing to follow gowellja’s annotations, I read an Atlantic article from last August on the “crisis” in the Humanities. The main takeaway from the article, I thought, was ultimately that the surveys that lead to compelling headlines may be asking he wrong questions. Between the lines, it seemed for example that history course enrollment is decreasing the most at institutions (big private universities and R-1s) that offer MA and PhD terminal degrees and may actually be increasing at those (regional universities) that offer only bachelors. A big discovery of the surveys seems to be that for most students, the great recession of 2008 never ended. An unaddressed issue influencing the perception that students have become more vocationally focused was the mountainous debt students now face. Could that be a contributing factor to the more precipitous decreased in Humanities enrollment at the most expensive schools? Another graph showed that between about 2010 and the present the number of women getting Humanities degrees has decreased to be about equal to men. The implication there might be that degrees for women finally relate to careers rather than to general preparedness for the “Mrs” degree. That may be bad for course enrollment, but it may also be a positive change for society.

The Atlantic article linked to an AHA article about declines in history enrollment. This was the source of the info the Atlantic cited about the disparities in decreasing enrollments between large and small institutions. But this article also failed to address the relative costs of enrollments at these schools, OR the likelihood that survey courses (where most of the decline is at the large schools but most of the growth is seen at small schools) at regional universities like mine tend to be taught by fulltime faculty like myself, while at big, expensive schools they’re often substantially or entirely taught by grad student TAs. The AHA article did mention that graduate enrollment in History was down 12% in the three years between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 academic years. Again, that’s unfortunate for History grad programs – but has anybody asked how many new History PhDs should America be producing each year?

All this reading led me ultimately to a reading list from The Disquantified Reading Group which was not only a great source of additional stuff to read but a very interesting example of how to do course content in an outward-facing way that makes it accessible to more people than just the current cohort of the current course. I’m going to try to emulate this, as much as I can, in my summer and fall courses.

 

Outline of my new #EnvHist course

 

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As part of preparing content for this Spring’s “People In the Environment” section I’m teaching on American Environmental History, I’m “porting” my textbook over to a full-on OER (open educational resource). This should allow me to make the content available to students in a less expensive and more flexible version, in both print and ebook formats, as well as making the chapters available to other educators as stand-alone modules they can mix and match, remix, rewrite, etc. As I do that, I’ll be able to add CC content from elsewhere and link to outside text, graphics, and video, as well as including narration and possibly even links to my lectures in the electronic version of the text. I believe Pressbooks allows for linking and embedding, and Camtasia allows adding interactive elements like quizzes along the way in the text. I’m going to try to incorporate both.

So the new elements I’ll be adding to my text will include color (!), fonts, revised format, quizzes and discussion prompts (possibly links), audio narration, videos from the web (YouTube, Archive), and links to my Camtasia lectures. I’ll also be updating the content. I think I’ll continue with the 15 chapters = 15 weeks format. But I might throw in some additional chapters that people could swap in or use as extra credit opportunities if they chose. The goals of many of these chapters is not to cover the topics exhaustively, but to make students aware of the issues and introduce basic ideas. The outline will look something like this:

Module/Chapter 1: Prehistory

Goals: Push back the “beginning” of the story, introduce Beringia, climate change, staple crops

Module/Chapter 2: Recontact

Goals: Introduce the Columbian Exchange (Crosby), native population disaster, early commerce (silver, sugar).

Module/Chapter 3: Colonial America

Goals: Compare Euro and native land use traditions (Cronon), Examine role of religion justifying colonialism, impact of slavery on land use.

Module/Chapter 4: Frontier & Grid

Goals: Understand role of western expansion in Revolution and early republic, consider barriers to expansion (Proclamation Line, Free Soil debate, Trail of Tears), describe pioneer life, immigration.

Module/Chapter 5: Industrial Revolution

Goals: Examine changes caused by industrialization on use of commons, incorporation, labor, economic and environmental externalities. (Steinberg)

Module/Chapter 6: Transportation Revolution

Goal: Understand changing technology and public policy around development of canals, steamboats, railroads. Consider tension between public and private sectors in issues like land grants, monopoly. Continue to automobiles and highways (with extra material on ethanol vs. leaded gasoline), air travel and containerized freight.

Module/Chapter 7: Commodities

Goal: Examine shift to a commodity market: population changes, new industries in packing (pork & beef) and their discontents (The Jungle), ice, lumber (and fires), flour (and populism).

Module/Chapter 8: Green Revolution

Goal: Cover beginning of commercial agriculture, ag. Improvement (manure, rotation), green manure (alfalfa), guano (Incas, Liebig, Humboldt, Chinese labor, Chincha Islands War, Guano Islands Act), Nitrate (Caliche, War of the Pacific, Haber-Bosch process), Phosphorus and Potassium, Hazards and pollution (Gulf Dead Zone), the Dust Bowl, Ogallala Aquifer, Export of Green Revolution to Developing World (Borlaug, Indian debt and suicide).

Module/Chapter 9: City Life

Goal: Examine what cities are for. Consider American colonial cities built on native cities (Cuzco, Mexico City, Plymouth), Land Reclamation and filling wetlands (Mexico City, New York, San Francisco), Sanitation and water supply (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles), symbiosis with hinterlands, Horses and mechanized transport, Urban reformers, parks and suburbs, contemporary exurbs and CSA.

Module/Chapter 10: Wilderness and Country Life

Goal: Distinguish between Conservation and Preservation movements (Muir v. Pinchot), examine ideas of wilderness (Cronon) and exclusion (Jacoby).

Module/Chapter 11: Farmers and Agribusiness

Goal: Examine America’s change from a country of farmers to an urban nation, implications for farmers, rural life, consumerism, politics.

Module/Chapter 12: Treasure Underground

Goal: Examine the mining and drilling of underground resources: Cerro Rico silver, ideas of subsoil ownership, copper, iron and steel, gold rushes, petroleum (in the world, the US, and the relationships between corporations, government, foreign policy).

Module/Chapter 13: Population and Limits

Goal: Examine Malthusian ideas, challenges to them such as #stopthemyth and Rosling’s demographics, consider controversies over Population Bomb, Limits to Growth, peak oil.

Module/Chapter 14: Externalities

Goal: Review the ways economics deals with the idea of externalities, with examples. Politics, Globalization, Dependency.

Module/Chapter 15: Environmentalism

Goal: Review American people’s concern over environmental issues. Consider alternatives to contemporary lifestyle. (incorporates “Food and Choice” chapter from book with survey of environmentalists.

 

 

OER EnvHist!

 

In addition to the Creative Commons course I’m taking this semester, I’m also involved in a project to turn my American Environmental History textbook into an OER (Open Educational Resource) prior to using it to teach a course called “People In the Environment: Environmental History” in the Spring semester. “People In the Environment” is a required course for all Bemidji State University undergrads, and it is usually taught in interdisciplinary teams. It has been ages (literally between 5 and 10 years!) since a historian has been on one of these teams, so I’m going to rectify that in the Spring. I’m going to trach a survey of American Environmental History this Spring, and then I’m putting in a request to teach a more in-depth version of it, with readings from some of the major works in the field, this summer.

As part of that process, I’m going to turn my American Environmental History textbook, which is already a very cheap alternative to the other textbooks available from academic presses, into a fully OER production. I may continue to sell copies of it on Amazon, since that seems like one of the lowest-cost ways to get a decently-printed paperback into peoples’ hands. Currently the book is $25 and the Kindle is either ten bucks or free (if you have Kindle Unlimited or if you buy the paperback you get a free Kindle copy). It will probably come down a bit from there. I’ll also probably be making audio and my course videos available online in a more permanent form. Maybe discussion prompts and quizzes and exam questions, as I put together the course material.

Hopefully turning this authoring project into an OER authoring project may give other Environmental History teachers an incentive to not only use the material but contribute to it and add their own content and perspectives. I don’t claim to have any type of unique insight into Environmental History — except maybe my feeling that it should be much more available to students and that opening this project up a bit might help make that happen!

What is Copyright?

Another installment of History in 5-or-so Minutes, this one also for my Creative Commons class, about copyrights. what they are, when they were first used, how theyre used today:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

And here’s the text, in case you want to follow along:

Copyright was first enacted in 1710 by the British Parliament in an act called the Statute of Anne, which begins:

Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families: For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books; May it please Your Majesty, that it may be Enacted …

Queen Anne was the sister of Queen Mary, the daughter of James II who was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Mary and her husband William of Orange took the throne, and after they were both dead in 1702 she took the throne. She ruled for twelve years, and then the throne passed to her second cousin George I, the 54-year old German ruler of the duchy of Hanover. Anne had 50 closer relatives, but they were all Catholics.

The Statute of Anne specified a copyright period of 14 years and allowed copyrights to be renewed for a similar term. The statute also for the first time vested the copyright in authors rather than publishers, which was an important change.

Any creative works or performances can be covered by copyright, as soon as they are performed or recorded. The ideas in a work are not protected; there are other forms such as trademarks for commercial expression and patents for inventions that cover ideas their creators wish to protect as intellectual property. In the US and under the Berne Convention, copyright begins as soon as a person creates the work and does not need to be applied for. However, registered copyrights can be easier to protect, since the registration established a paper trail or what might be called a chain of custody.

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works is an international agreement established in 1886 and originally signed by 10 nations. Currently, 176 states are parties to the convention. Some of its minimum standards are that the term of copyright must be at least the author’s life plus 50 years, and that copyright must be automatic and formal registration is not required. The US did not sign on until 1989, partly because the convention nullified America’s requirements of copyright registration and mandatory copyright notice.

Under the Berne Convention, a person receives copyright as soon as she creates a work in a recorded form or a performance. This is unlike other forms of intellectual property like inventions, which must be protected by filing for a patent. At the end of the copyright period, the work enters the public domain and becomes available for free use, copying, and modification. Works that are made using the public domain material are then covered by copyright, but the copyright does not extend to the public domain elements incorporated in the work.

Copyright exceptions and limitations are designed to safeguard the public by allowing people to use excerpts of works for the purposes of scholarship, review, and commentary. Works that couldn’t be quoted couldn’t be reviewed or discussed in public fora. Similarly, educators are allowed to use works in classroom settings under “fair use” provisions, without permission or payment. Also, once a single copy of a work (say, a book) has been sold, it can be resold, donated, loaned, or otherwise passed on to anyone without additional permission or payment to the copyright holder. This is what allows libraries to loan out books. The advent of ebooks has muddied these waters somewhat, since technology has to be developed to prevent the loaned copies from being kept, which would be copying rather than lending and would violate copyright. Many of the digital rights management systems people have implemented to deal with these issues are controversial and have been criticized by advocates of information sharing.

What’s the Problem with Proudhon?

The latest installment of History in 5-or-so Minutes, which actually comes in at about 4 minutes! Enjoy!

And here’s the text:

In discussion this week with my two Modern World History sections, I ran into some interesting responses to the passage from Proudhon I had some of them read. This week we were talking about issues in the nineteenth century including the European colonialist scramble for Africa, Commodore Perry’s forceful opening of Japan to western trade, pseudo-scientific racism and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and the response by Latin Americans to “The American Peril.” The Proudhon reading was paired with a passage from Ernest Edward Williams’s “Made in Germany”, in which Williams complains of the negative effects of German industrialization to British market dominance. Students in the group reading Williams and Proudhon seemed to understand the “Germany” passage much more easily than the Proudhon, despite the fact that the “Germany passage was longer and came from what I think of as a slightly more difficult sourcebook.

So I’m starting to think about the issue. What’s the problem with Proudhon? Probably the main issue is in the introduction to the passage from What Is Property?, where the editors announce that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was an early socialist and is associated also with anarchism. Boom! That was it, I think, for many of my students.

When they were describing the reading in discussion to classmates who had read other materials, several of the students said things like, “Well, he was a socialist” or “that type of thing sounds good in theory, but doesn’t work in practice.” These comments were not really germane to the brief passage, where Proudhon doesn’t actually make any concrete proposals. Well, okay, the editors did include the part where he says “Property is robbery!” So maybe the sensationalism of that line drowned out the rest of the argument, which was a bit less flashy. But that leaves me with the same questions.

Should I avoid using this particular passage, because of the introduction as socialism and the line equating property with theft? I’d like to direct the discussion more toward Proudhon’s critique of absolute ownership (the freedom to destroy) as being both unsustainable and not in society’s interest. And I’d like to make the more general point that not having a viable alternative doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a valid criticism of the status quo. Maybe I’ll try to sneak up on this next time I teach this module: introduce the criticisms of absolute property rights, unregulated markets, etc. before identifying these critiques as coming from socialists. And there are other folks (pre-Marx, too!) like Robert Owen who I might introduce as people who offered some creative solutions to the problems they perceived.

The question seems contemporary, with people on the left beginning to identify themselves as socialists (Bernie) or Democratic Socialists (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). Maybe I’ll start some type of a forum or blog space, where people could present their arguments and understandings of these issues. Just a thought, but wouldn’t it be fun to teach an interdisciplinary course with an economist and a political scientist, called something like “Free Markets vs. Socialism.”

Decolonization and Economics

This is a reaction I had to a chapter on economics in a book called Decolonization: A Short History by Jansen and Osterhammel. I was surprised how much I didn’t like this chapter, and it convinced me not to use any more of the text in my Decolonization class. I also ranted about it into a microphone in case you want to listen to it. It’s a 9-minute segment of my new podcast History in 5-or-so Minutes:

 

Change in the colonial status in both directions (colonization and then decolonization, whether contested or not) brought about significant changes in not only the social situations and cultures of colonized regions, but their economies. The authors list issues like new infrastructure, new spaces for trade and migration, new jobs and commercial opportunities (the less positive way of describing this might be new opportunities for forced labor or slavery), renegotiation of gender roles (were any of these improvements for women? Okay, partial elimination of sati, but an attempt to completely remove of women from their central position in Southeast Asian trade networks), changing work practices, exposure to modern currency and investment regimes, environmental changes, and “redistribution” of wealth and poverty (which seems like a euphemism for the enrichment of the metropolitan center or its colonial agents at the expense of the colonized masses).

I think it’s fair to ask why the heavy positive spin on this chapter? Colonization was no more an economic triumph for the people of the world than it was a way of bringing them to “civilization”. Is this just a latter-day expression of the White Man’s Burden?

The authors DO note that “modern” infrastructure was often neglected during the decolonization process and “specialized export production shrank in favor of subsistence economy.” But they assume this was an unanticipated negative consequence of the struggle. It’s only in the last paragraph of the chapter they mention Gandhi’s efforts to remove the market focus and consumerism from the independent Indian culture he was trying to create. Throughout most o the chapter they assume “The independent governments wanted to follow up on the colonial era’s modernization gains” but they unfortunately sometimes failed. (120)

Even if the elites of these new nation-states were hell-bent on continuing the commercial relationships that had helped MAKE them elites, that does not suggest most of the people who supported (and often fought for) independence felt the same way. The authors mention an exception, where these elites pursued socialist programs of (usually) agrarian reform or (occasionally) state-run industrialism. This seems to be acceptable, because the impetus comes from an elite intellectual source: socialist or communist theory. Any other motivation or rationale for community control or ownership seems to be lumped into what they call “retrograde dreams of bucolic innocence.” (120)

Nor do the authors spend a lot of time considering resource extraction or the development of consumer markets as “colonial” motivators. “Only rarely,” they say, “in the nineteenth and twentieth century, did colonies arise primarily out of economic motives, such as ‘mercantilist’ considerations to obtain direct access to raw materials, or to acquire protected and favored outlets for the products of the home economy.” (121) REALLY? British colonialism in India was operated by the British East India Company for over a century until they bungled things so badly that the Indians rebelled in 1857. What was that if not an economic motivation? Eliminating the Indian textile industry, making India a market for British textiles, and securing a supply of not only raw cotton, but tea and opium, was the whole point. The authors seem to believe that “geostrategic considerations” and “prestige” were the only reasons Western nations tried to build empires. This seems naïve and overly dependent on explanations derived solely from political historians.

They also say they “do not find many examples of governments acting under direct pressure from colonial private interests.” I’m not 100% sure what they mean by this, and I think it has to be very narrowly defined in order to be valid. What about private interests operating in the colonies but owned and controlled in the centers? The British railroad builders in India (who also built extensively in Latin America, which was nominally free but I would argue effectively still colonial in many ways) seem to have had some influence on government policies.

And getting back to natural resources, they aren’t all that modern when you really start looking into it. Silver in colonial Latin America. Quinine, rubber, sugar. And then in the 19th and 20th centuries (which this book is supposed to be about, isn’t it?) there’s guano, nitrate, and copper – and that’s just in Chile! Yes, nominally independent; but very much economically and culturally dependent on Britain.

The authors later suggest that economic considerations couldn’t have been paramount because many colonies “were of little relevance at the macroeconomic level—some were not much more than a piece of desert or jungle.” (123) Although this may seem intuitively true to white Europeans, I don’t think it’s accurate. If we make a list of colonized regions, I think it’s fair to say that the number of economically “worthless” colonies is rare almost to the point of nonexistence. Even someplace like Australia, which wasn’t necessarily valued at first for an abundant resource like silver, was economically valuable as a “dump” for England’s surplus and criminal population. It might be possible to subdivide colonized regions to the point that some of them are unproductive, but no one went out looking for those regions. They came along with other valuable places as part of the land grab.

The authors DO mention that many later colonies were “nearly settler-free.” (123) This strikes me as the best evidence for a shift from social colonialism to economic imperialism. It is interesting that often the most obviously vocal and violent opponents of decolonization are the settlers such as the pieds noirs in Algeria. But being obvious does not equal being the only opponents of regional independence movements. It may be true that “settlers saw themselves as victims of decolonization”, but if we’re going to say that we also need to acknowledge that those “victims” pretty much failed to see the people who wanted their land as the previous owners, if they saw them as human at all. (124)

The authors briefly mention that some newly independent colonized people reacquire their patrimonial resources. They show their bias when they say “expropriate’, and then they give examples of Burma “expropriat[ing] foreign interests in teak forests” and the Mossadegh government nationalizing oil production in 1951. (126) They conveniently fail to mention that MI-6 and the CIA acted in the interest of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) to overthrow the Iranian government and install the Shah in August 1953.

The authors conclude by mentioning that newly independent nations try very hard to honor their debts to international creditors and to avoid an “unthinkable…renunciation of debt like that following the 1917 Russian and 1949 Chinese revolutions.” (128) Is this really evidence of a desire to jump into economic modernization? Or of a deathly fear of being cut off by the international financial community? Seems like a little historical review of international banking might be valuable here.

Before Origin of Species there was Vestiges

5924680-MVestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared anonymously in 1844.  Its author was Robert Chambers, a publisher and philanthropist of Edinburgh.  Vestiges, “alarmingly popular despite a merciless critical pounding, was regarded by the orthodox as pernicious in the very highest degree.”

This quote comes from the Introduction of Milton Millhauser’s Just Before Darwin (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).  The other book I’ve found (which I ran across accidentally, because it mentions Charles Bradlaugh) is James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).  I read these because I was developing an impression, after discovering the Erasmus Darwins of Massachusetts, that ideas of biological evolution were popular among regular people for several decades before Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.  It almost seems that Charles Darwin was merely the figure who forced the scientific establishment (represented by the Royal Society) to consider a topic they’d been studiously avoiding or even repressing ever since Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus published his Zoonomia in 1796!

Millhauser says part of the problem with Vestiges is that it was in plain English and it was inexpensive.  This made it available and affordable for the masses.  “Once again,” Millhauser says (when he says again is he referring to Erasmus Darwin?), “the public was informed, by a glib pseudo scientist without even Lamarck’s pretensions to authority, that the true Adam of the human race was a baboon” (5).  This sums up the issue nicely: it has to do with public, rather than scientific, understanding of humanity’s origins.  It has to do with the control of scientific information by an elite cadre of authorities, naturally drawn from the upper classes and educated at the best “public” schools.  And it has to do with the inevitable demise of a biblical creation story that few educated Englishmen actually took seriously, but that nearly all believed should be upheld (like Plato’s Noble Lie) for the common people, especially in lieu of an alternative story that maintained the authority of a state-sponsored institution like the established church.

Millhauser dismisses Erasmus Darwin and Charles Lyell in an endnote, saying “they each devote to evolution only a small portion of a work dealing with some other major theme” (191 n. 4).  This is true, and Vestiges deserves recognition as the first complete book on the subject to achieve wide readership.  But it ignores the relationships between the ideas of Darwin and Lyell and those of Chambers.  Making his case for a serious study of Chambers, Millhauser identifies the issue of synthesis, and especially of synthesis by amateurs.  He says “An early Victorian layman might still feel…that he had perceived a truth that the professionals had somehow managed to ignore or even to hush up, and that this might provide the principle of unification, the frank definition of the central tendency of science, for which the world was waiting” (8).  This is an idea that has particular resonance for me at this point, not least in the political implications such a changed understanding of the world might have on regular people in the early 19th century.

Bemidji in 1947

1947mapBemidji’s 1947 Planning Board document, prepared by Evert, Kincaid, and Dean of Chicago, introduces the city as a “prospering community built along the shores of beautiful Lake Bemidji and Lake Irving.” After briefly mentioning its pioneer history and the timber boom, the introduction says that by 1947, “the community is largely dependent upon agricultural activities of the surrounding region, which is supplemented during the vacation seasons by the tourist trade.”

To encourage tourism, the Planning Board wanted to improve the waterfront. An amphitheater and boat launches were proposed for the “Central Park,” where the Mississippi enters Lake Bemidji, and a beach-house, campground, and docks for the “South Side Park,” on the site of the Crookston Lumber Mill.

It’s also interesting to consider that electricity and city water and sewer services were restricted to a small grid in the center of Bemidji, and that most of the land outside the center of town was considered vacant in 1947.

More images at NorthernMinnesotaHistory.com. And did I mention I started a new blog called NorthernMinnesotaHistory.net?

Boosting the Cutover District, 1915

On December 9, 1915, the Bemidji Pioneer printed a 44-page “Booster Edition” of the paper while the Northern Minnesota Development Association was holding its annual meeting in the city. Below is the front page of the edition.

The Northern Minnesota lumber boom peaked in 1905, and by 1915 annual lumber production had fallen to half of 1905 levels. Roughly a decade later the boom would be over, when the last remaining large mill, the Crookston mill in Bemidji, closed in 1926. So it’s interesting that only the bottom right corner of the image has any logs. The rest — and the basis of the prosperity the boosters were promoting — was devoted to farming. I’ll have a lot more to say about that, as I continue my research.

B1915-1 copy