Monday, August 2, 2010
Don't touch that dial!
Public historians sometimes see our our academic counterparts as tradition-bound and reluctant to engage the general public or to embrace new technologies. So it's worth taking note of a terrific radio program hosted by three academic historians: BackStory - With the American History Guys. The show bills itself as a "public radio program that brings historical perspective to the events happening around us today." Historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh "tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths." The shows are topical and typically include not only the hosts but guest historians with special expertise in the topic at hand, other guests with something to say about the topic, historic sound clips, and short interviews.
A recent episode, Independence Daze: A History of July Fourth, illustrates the approach. Guests include Pauline Maier, who draws on her book American Scripture to talk about the creation and changing meanings of the Declaration of Independence; a history of fireworks and the Fourth provided by James Heintze, author of The Fourth of July Encyclopedia; and David Blight narrating a reenactment of Frederick Douglass' famous address "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro." Other guests include public officials in charge of Fourth of July celebrations, fireworks vendors, and listeners calling in. Along the way the hosts discuss popular support for the American Revolution, the political uses of the holiday in the 19th century and in the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder,and how a secular holiday has acquired religious overtones in the 20th century. The program is a thorough and entertaining survey of the history of this iconic American holiday.
Other recent show topics include Scales of Justice: A History of Supreme Court Nomination, Climate Control: A History of Heating & Cooling, and Coming Home: A History of War Veterans.
As impressive as the show itself is the associated website. Each episode has a page that includes not only downloadable MP3 files but audio excerpts of show highlights, really extensive links to further readings, and a discussion board where listeners add their own perspectives on the topic. And of course you can subscribe to podcasts of the show via iTunes or through various RSS readers. The website is a wonderful resource for teachers--every episode could easily become a lesson plan with primary documents, short and accessible secondary readings, and audio.
Not every episode or every part of each episode works equally well. The jokey interchanges between the host sometimes feel forced, some guests are more scintillating than others, and speaking extemporaneously the hosts sometimes indulge in generalities or even get some minor point wrong. As an example of the latter, one of the hosts on the Fourth of July episode repeats the old myth that John Adams described Americans as divided over the revolution with a third in favor, a third against, and a third neutral. This is a myth that I frequently repeated myself until J. L. Bell set me right.
Quibbles aside, BackStory is a terrific public history project from three leading American historians, building on strong institutional support from the Virginia Institute for the Humanities, the University of Virginia; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the University of Richmond; the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and others. Backstory is model of what academic historians can do when they go public!
~ Larry Cebula