A Difficult (Podcast) Undertaking

Eric Nuzum, whose podcasting work I greatly admire, wrote recently that he thinks that episode narrative podcasting might be on its way out. He means narrative podcasts that have a clear beginning and end, like a miniseries, rather than a series like Consolation Prize, which could theoretically go on indefinitely. He made some very compelling arguments for why these types of shows have a hard time getting off the ground, and why only a few of them succeed. We can’t all be Serial, after all.

Eric listed a series of statements about why these kinds of shows succeed and why they fail. This read was tough for me because I’m in the very, very early planning stages of a show just like the ones he described. So I guess now’s the time for me to justify to myself why I want to make my show, and how I’m going to make it work.

For starters, it’s important that you know that I’m an academic. (If you read this blog on the regular, you already know that.) I approach podcasting from the perspective of an academic. This means that I never expect anything I do to “make money,” for example. It also means that podcasting is only a part of my job; I also teach, research, write, and administer grant-funded projects.

To be more specific, I’m a historian—a historian who studies the First Barbary War. And that’s going to be the focus of the show I want to create. I’m going to take a risk here and spec it out so you know where I’m going with it, but I really am in the very, very early stages (like, still in the focus sentence stage), so it’s subject to change a lot.

The show

If you know one thing about the First Barbary War, it’s either (1) the burning of the USS Philadelphia in February 1804, or (2) William Eaton’s march across the desert in the spring of 1805 that has been immortalized in the Marine Hymn (yes, that “shores of Tripoli”). It’s this march that is the topic of the show I’m beginning to develop. The current focus sentence is this:

William Eaton documented every part of his scheme to reseat Hamet Karamanli on the throne of his usurping younger brother Yusuf Karamanli because he understood the historicity of what he was doing, but his journals reveal a richer and more complex history than even he knew.

William Eaton, by Charles Balthazar Julien Fรฉvret de Saint-Mรฉmin. 1808. National Portrait Gallery.

In other words, the jumping-off point for this series is the journals of William Eaton, which are basically our only source for much of his historic journey. By layering on the history of the people and places Eaton encounters, we can accomplish two main goals:

  1. We can de-Americanize this story. This story is often told with a hefty dose of American exceptionalism (see previous note about the Marine Hymn). But Americans were actually a very small part of this story, and the other folks have received almost no focus in the past.
  2. We can explain how and why this whole journey could even happen. The response I have every time I think about this story is “How in the WORLD did he pull this off?” Not surprisingly, it’s not all about the triumph of the human spirit (though it is a little bit about that). It’s about politics, economics, geography, imperialism, and so much more.

I’m not going to go into detail here about the structure of the show or how I intend to pull this off, but it’s not going to be as straightforward as it might seem.

There’s a lot more to say about my ideas for the show, but suffice to say, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. It’s not a true crime story (everyone’s favorite podcast genre); it’s not a hero’s journey, despite the fact that some people in the story thought it was; if it fits into any genre, it’s really a tragedy. You’ll have to wait for the show to see why.

I already have some of the research done (this project is an offshoot of my book), but I also just got a new set of documents that I was planning to read today instead of writing this blog post. So this is happening, by hook or by crook, and I’m already off to the races.

So that’s the show. Now here’s why I think it’s worth doing, and why I’m going to do it, even though the episodic narrative is a real challenge.

Eric argues that these kinds of shows most likely succeed if they come from an established podcast shop. This show will likely be under the aegis of the studio at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, which is not an established shop. Yet. But I do already have a show there, and we’ve got several more in development. So by the time I’m ready to launch this Eaton story, I hope RRCHNM will indeed be an established shop.

Eric also argues that these shows only work if their revenue is established already. This is where my academic side kicks in. Money-making isn’t the goal here; if we generate any money at all, we need it before release, in order to fund the making of the show. Where does that kind of money come from? In academia, it comes from grants, which fund research trips and course releases and stuff like that. I’m very familiar with this process. RRCHNM is almost entirely grant-funded already.

Ideally, a show like mine wouldn’t have ads at all. To be honest, this kind of show isn’t one that a lot of advertisers would even be interested in, I’m guessing. So I know straight out of the gate that the standard revenue streams aren’t going to work anyway. I produced Consolation Prize only through the good graces of my boss, who gave me some time from a number of folks at the Center, and by using part of my “administrative” time. I don’t want to do that for this show, but I will be looking for funders who fund academic work, not normal ad-type funding.

I realize that this is going to be a hard sell for some funders. Many fellowships, grants, etc., for scholars are meant to lead to a monograph or a journal article. Funders for digital projects often expect results in the first year of work. I think this project is going to take me at least three years of solid research (hence I’ll need the traditional funding streams), and two full years to actually produce the show (at which time I’ll need the digital project funding). These two timeframes overlap, though. So I don’t know where I’m going to get the money. But I’m going to get it somehow.

Eric’s next marker of success is “They took the time to make it right.” I would like to release the first episode of this show in March 2025, and I imagine that it will be a significant part of my research work from now until then. I’ve got a lot of research to do—even though this story is one I’m very, very familiar with already. I also want to push the form in interesting ways, and some of those ideas are going to require some experimentation. So while I’m doing the research, I’ll also be playing with the method. I’m hoping that I’ll have some help in both of these arenas—if I get grants, I’ll be writing in both undergraduate and graduate students as research assistants and producers.

Eric’s final marker of success is that they understood their audience. This is something that I intend to spend a lot of time figuring out. We did a bad job of this with Consolation Prize, but we’re going to do better in future shows. And I think there is an audience out there for this show. People like early America. People like underdog stories. People like the Marines (ha). So the audience is out there—and I will figure out how to get this show into their ears.

Now, Eric also has a few ideas about what makes episodic narrative podcasts fail. The first one is the biggest one, I think. He says that these podcasts fail because it’s not clear why they exist as an audio story.

This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I happen to think that audio is the perfect form for historical stories (and thousands of storytellers across the millennia agree with me, for what it’s worth ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). Audio is an intimate, story-driven medium, able to connect an audience to something that’s completely foreign to them. History is foreign. And it’s important for people to feel both connected and disconnected from the past—connected because it helps us to understand ourselves better, but disconnected because the lessons of the past do not inherently shape the future.

At its heart, history is a story. It’s a story that can be told from dozens of perspectives; it’s a story that can be told from an earth-sized view, or from the view of one person, or even one aspect of one person’s life. Of course, most historians write their stories down in books, articles, or some other written medium. I’m not here to knock that. But I think people sometimes connect to someone telling them a story better than they connect to reading it. (And let’s face it, most people don’t go around picking up historical monographs.) Podcasting is meant for a non-academic audience, which is the audience I like talking to.

In addition, podcasting is a brilliant way to tell historical stories because podcasting can be immersive–but not TOO immersive. It can be hard to really communicate the vibe or atmosphere of the historical story in a monograph. But in a podcast, you can use sound and music to help the listener feel like they’re there, or at least they’re in a similar place. However, done well, podcasts give off a vibe without being too specific, too pedantic. (Every historian has their love-to-hate documentary/movie/TV show that takes on their historical area and does a very bad job of setting the scene or doing things with historical verisimilitude.)

For my own show, and others that deal with any historical period that’s before, say, 1920, there’s no audio on tape. There’s no video that can give us a glimpse into what things looked like and sounded like. There’s only written sources, and in my case, really there’s only one man’s recollections. That means that setting the scene and telling the story will require imagination, creativity—and lots of judgment calls. But no more so than any other historian who decides what to leave in, and what to leave out.

I want to tell William Eaton’s story in audio because I want it to feel like we’re traveling along with him. I want to follow Eaton’s progress temporally, releasing an episode every day starting in March 2025 until the 220th anniversary of the Battle of Derna. I want the listeners feeling the chaos and frustrations all around him, hearing the many voices that clamored for his attention, and imagining the endless drudgery of marching across a dry and inhospitable desert toward a goal that may or may not actually succeed. There’s a lot of tension in this story; there’s a lot of twists and turns. I don’t want you to be able to read ahead to see what happens. (Kidding…sort of…since you could actually just go read a book about this event.) But I want to play up the tension. I want to slow down the story and make it impossible to skip the stuff that doesn’t seem important. I want you to feel, not just learn.

Eric’s next reason for failure is that these shows have attempted an “if you build it they will come” approach. I hope I’ve already demonstrated that that’s not what I plan to do. But I’ll also say that in the academic setting, isn’t that pretty much exactly what most people do with all of their work? We do the work and then we just hope people will read it. To be honest, if more than 500 people listen to this show, that will probably dwarf the number of people who read my book. So while I hope people will listen, and I’m going to do my darnedest to get my work in front of the right people so they do listen, at the end of the day this is a piece of scholarship for me. It’s worth doing even if not that many people listen.

In terms of my academic career, doing a podcast instead of a monograph is a huge risk. However, I would argue that the amount of work that I intend to put into this show, and the creativity that will be required in order to pull it off with scholarly integrity while also making it interesting, should put it right up there with a scholarly monograph.

From a podcasting perspective, this is also a risk. Episodic narratives are hard and maybe don’t get the rewards that other types of shows do. Making a show without being able to interview ANYONE who was there or has personal knowledge is tough. I don’t want this show to sound like all the other shows out there, either. This is a unique story and I want it to sound unique.

The bottom line is, this is going to be a ton of work. I’m going to do much of the research on my own, but I’m going to be assembling a team to do the production because there’s no way I can do this alone. But that’s also part of why this is worth doing even if it doesn’t “pay off” financially: working on a show like this teaches students so much about narrative, research, audience, and approach. So even if there’s no other reason to do this, the pure pedagogy of it is enough.

So, while I share Eric’s concern about episodic narratives, I’m going to do it anyway. If you want to follow along as I work on the show, feel free to follow me on Twitter @abbymullen; I’m sure I’ll be tweeting about it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Wrapping Up Season 1

Today we released the final episode of Season 1 of Consolation Prize. The whole team is going to have a debrief session sometime later this summer, but I figured I should get my thoughts down while they’re still fresh. So here’s a few random thoughts about this first foray into narrative podcasting, for me and for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

I’m a better writer because of podcasting.

I was a decent writer before starting this project. But I’ve thought about the *craft* of writing more in the past 10 months than perhaps in my whole previous life as an academic, because writing for a narrative podcast is a whole different beast than dashing off a conference paper or even writing a book. Writing for podcasts is a skill that takes a lot of practice, but the work I’ve done to learn this new skill has actually improved my for-reading writing.

The host of a podcast is only as good as her team.

I have an awesome team. Have I said that before? I have an awesome team. Without them, Consolation Prize would never have made it off the ground. Having people to bounce ideas off, letting other folks do quite a lot of the research, relying on other folks to edit and clarify your work—it’s all what makes a good podcast run. I love that our team for this season was made up of a faculty member (me), a postdoc, an advanced graduate student, a less-advanced graduate student, and an undergraduate student, along with a former adjunct. We’re all in different places; we study different things; we have different ideas. This diversity makes the show so much better.

Podcasting takes a ton of work.

Anyone who says “Podcasting is easy, just pick up a mic and talk into it” is going to make a bad podcast. We spent about an hour of work for every minute in our show, and we could easily have doubled that (but everyone on my team, including me, has a full-time job in addition to working on the show).

Metrics are dumb.

I don’t make any claims that Consolation Prize is the best at anything, but I would say it’s in the top half of history podcasts in terms of its content and its production. It’s definitely NOT in the top half in terms of listenership. This has been an area of intense frustration for me. I never had any illusions that we’d be Throughline or anything like that—but I do think that a lot more people (even historians) ought to be listening. This isn’t because I want people to hear my voice. It’s in part because we work super hard on every single episode, and it feels like our investment isn’t paying off. But more importantly, it’s because I think the content is worth knowing. I think we do a super job of connecting these obscure public servants’ stories to larger themes in American history, and our episodes are a great way to learn about those themes.

It’s also frustrating that so few people interact with the show on the socials. There are a handful of folks who retweet us, like our posts on Facebook, and comment on things on Instagram (and we appreciate you all!!). But the vast majority don’t. So it feels like we’re flying in the dark a lot of the time. We WANT to know what people think of our show, positive or negative. But podcasting kind of feels like Zoom teaching sometimes: just talking into the void, with anonymous black boxes as an audience, instead of a conversation, which is what we were hoping for.

I didn’t do a good job of audience research before we started the show, so that’s part of the problem. We’re hoping to rectify some of these issues in Season 2, but some of the people who would actually enjoy our show don’t listen to it (or others like it) because they don’t see it as real scholarship. (I’m not making this up; people have said this exact thing in my presence.) That’s a real bummer.

This is only the beginning.

Season 2 of Consolation Prize is already under development. I’m excited. I also have a million other podcast ideas bumping around in my brain, and now the job is to figure out which one to pursue. Now that my book manuscript is under peer review and nearing completion(ish), I can turn my attention to my next long-form scholarly project. I’ve already decided that I don’t have another book in me right now—but I do have a podcast. So I’m really excited to get started on a new idea that’s pretty different from Consolation Prize that will, by its completion, have easily as much research and writing in it as a monograph.

Why do podcasts like mine want more listeners?

This might seem like a really obvious question: why do I, an academic and independent podcaster, want more listeners? Of course it’s because we want our content in more ears, right? But why do we want our content in more ears?

I have two shows right now: one that’s a history podcast called Consolation Prize, made by academics but targeted more toward history-lovers who aren’t in academia (though many of our current listeners are academics); and one that’s for kids, called Big If True, about random big things in the universe. Both of these shows need listeners, and here’s why.

Minifigure with headphones and laptop

Why listener numbers don’t matter

Before I get to why we do want listeners, there are few ways in which listener numbers DON’T matter to me.

I don’t care about ad revenue.

It’s important for us to say at the outset that we don’t need listeners to drive ad revenue. Many podcasts survive only on ad revenue, and I don’t have any problems with ads in podcasts. Goodness knows I’ve bought things because of podcast ads, so they clearly work (research bears this out). However, at this moment in the life of both of my shows, no one would advertise on our show anyway because…we don’t have enough listeners! But even if we do ever hit that mark, ad revenue is never going to be a primary driver of listenership. For starters, I don’t know that we’ll ever even do ads. Certainly there are some ethical issues with placing ads on a kids’ show. And since Consolation Prize is run by an academic unit, there are likely some complicated legal issues with ad revenue there as well.

So will my shows always be ad-free? I can’t make any promises, but signs point to yes, or limited ads at most.

Listenership isn’t an ego trip.

There are some podcasters who seem to view their listener numbers as some sort of validation of their worth, or, less charitably, a trip for their ego. I won’t lie that it feels good to see the listener numbers go up, but we don’t want listeners solely so we can brag about the number of listeners.

Girl listening on her bed, with headphones on

We do need listeners, however!

Listenership numbers still matter. Here are a few reasons why.

We think our shows have value.

For both of the shows that I helm, I think we’re telling stories that people need to hear. (If I didn’t, it would be stupid for us to have a show.) I’ve become increasingly convinced that podcasting is an effective way of disseminating information, and I think our shows do a good job of it. So of course I want people to hear it. Plus, we put a TON of work into each show, and so it’s nice to see that other people value the work as well.

We want to showcase other people.

We love having guests on the shows because it gives other people a chance to show off what THEY do well. That’s why I love having junior scholars on Consolation Prize; it’s why we reach out to scientists and historians and other people. It’s so fun to spread the news about all the amazing scholarship and adventure that’s happening in the world, and we want our guests to get as much great feedback on their work as possible.

Bigger numbers breed better content.

There are a lot of ways bigger numbers breed better content.

First, bigger numbers mean more incentive for guests to come on the show. Naturally, if people are going to sit down for an interview, they want to be heard by a lot of people. So the larger audience, the more likely prospective guests will say yes. Plus, the likelihood of a guest having heard of our show and thus be more interested in coming on the show goes up if the listenership is bigger.

Second, bigger numbers mean more revenue through other means. We don’t have a Patreon or microdonation system set up yet for either podcast, but it doesn’t seem worth it right now because of the small listener numbers. The numbers just don’t support us even bothering with the setup of those accounts. But at some point, Big if True in particular is fully self-funded, so it would be nice for us to make a little bit of money in order to improve our setup and expand our outreach.

Third, bigger numbers, of course, is a self-fulfilled prophecy: the more people who listen, the more other people who listen. Right now, I know probably 75% of our listeners personally in some way. It sure would be lovely to get people to listen whom I DON’T know personally. Everyone says that word of mouth is the best advertisement for podcasts, so the more mouths words can come out of, the better.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Well, there are a few takeaways:

  • Listen to my shows. ๐Ÿ˜‚
  • Actually, that’s it. Listen to my shows. ๐Ÿ˜‚

The Halfway Point

If we take literally the Bible’s accounting of our days as “threescore and ten,” then today is the halfway point for me: 35. Happy birthday to me. 2020 hasn’t shaken out quite like I expected, but it hasn’t been without its joys and comforts. So here are a few professional-ish things I’m grateful for today.

I accomplished some stuff this year.

Despite everything, I did do some stuff this year. And some of it is, if I may say so, pretty darn good. I’m really proud of it.

  • I signed a contract with Johns Hopkins University Press for my book about the First Barbary War. I still feel a tremendous amount of impostor syndrome about my dissertation work, but one thing that has helped me as I’ve revised it into a book is the advice and mentorship of a senior scholar of naval history (and, in fact, the person who wrote the book that really truly sealed my interest in naval history). He has read all my chapter revisions so far and has given me gracious and incisive comments. I didn’t make my original deadline for delivering the book to the press because of covid, but I will deliver it in 2021.
  • I started a podcast about the history of US consuls. This podcast came out of my work on the Barbary consuls of the First Barbary War, but it has honestly been the most interesting and generative scholarly work I’ve done in a while. Plus, working with the Consolation Prize team has been a tremendous privilege and learning experience.
  • I survived and even learned a lot from teaching online. The emergency shift caused me to overhaul my entire strategy for teaching, and it was really productive for me. A ton of work, uncompensated for the most part, but my teaching is better for it. (Nonetheless I’m ready to be back in the classroom, maybe for fall 2021.)

I learned from a lot of people.

I got the chance to be involved in some pretty fun stuff this year, some of it only possible because of the virtualization of everything due to covid. A few stand out.

  • The podcasting sessions from the VCU+ICA Community Media Center were fantastic for learning more about podcasting and hearing from experts in the field. (I hope there will be more in the spring!)
  • I got to talk about Star Trek and the First Barbary War at NavyCon 2020-A, which was great fun. But I learned much more than I imparted, I’m sure—specifically, I learned the term FICINT, and I look forward to delving more into that in 2021.

It feels like I should have done, or maybe did do, more. But I can’t remember any more things. Hello pandemic year.

I started some things.

These are more personal, I suppose. Though it feels like work has been all-consuming this year, because the amount of time it takes to teach online, shepherd a kid through online school, and do good DH work from home turns out to be astronomical, I’ve also tried to do some things for myself.

  • I started exercising for real. I got an Apple Watch, which has really kept me on track, but I started before that. I’m probably in better shape than I’ve been in ten years (which is a VERY VERY low bar). Mostly I’ve been doing strength and cardio in my bedroom. I started running, but I have had persistent feet problems (some of which predate the running) that have prevented me from getting into a routine. I’m hoping we can get those fully resolved in 2021 so I can get serious about training; I really want to do an adventure race in fall 2021. Have I been watching too much World’s Toughest Race? Yes. I also got a stationary bike for Christmas, so I’ve already been doing some work on that.
  • I started developing a podcast with my daughter. She insists that she loves online school, but it hasn’t been awesome for her. So she and I came up with this podcast idea. Its external goal is to learn about cool stuff out in the world; its internal goal to help her feel enthusiastic about learning in general after a hard year. I’m pretty excited about it. (OH, by the way, we’re launching it today, so please please please go listen and share with your friends!)
  • I listened to a lot of podcasts. I listen to them partially as professional development (both for content and for structure and style), but mostly I just listen because I love learning new things. I feel like I’d lost some of my own joy in learning over the past few years, and podcasts have really brought that joy back for me this year.

Looking at these lists, it seems like a poor accounting for an entire year. But we’ve survived this year. We didn’t get sick; we didn’t have any severe mental health issues; we went to church on YouTube; we went to school on Zoom; we spent a LOT of time together as a family; and we survived. I don’t take any of that for granted. I’m extraordinarily blessed to have had such a boring year, where the only major events were good ones, not terrifying or heart-crushing ones.

So, as I enter the back half, or, as my running app says, “it’s time to turn around and go home,” I’m looking forward to what 2021 will bring. I have hope that, though it will be a long slog out of the turmoil and sorrow of 2020, the arc is bending in the right direction.

Top Ten Podcasts of the Year

Yeah, I talk about podcasts a lot. One might say I’ve become mildly obsessed with them. But I’ve learned so much from listening to podcasts, and I’ve learned SO MUCH from making them, that I have opinions–a lot of them–about what makes a good podcast and about my favorites.

Spotify told me that my top listened-to podcast for the year was Throughline, from NPR. What Spotify doesn’t account for is that I listen to a lot more podcasts on the Overcast app on my phone than I do on Spotify (though more on Spotify now that I’m not commuting anywhere, since March anyway). And the number of listens doesn’t necessarily line up with the way I feel about podcasts. So I decided I’d make my Top 10 list for the year, just for fun, going from 10 to 1.

10. HowSound. This one is on my list because it’s been incredibly helpful for me as I’ve learned about podcasting myself. I’d actually give it a tie with Gimlet Academy, which is where I first got my start in thinking about what an episode should sound like.

9. The Incomparable Game Show. It’s not all serious over here in Abby’s Podcast Land. I don’t listen to all of the game shows, but I listen to many of them, especially Inconceivable and Random Pursuit. (Honorable mention for silly game shows: Go Fact Yourself.)

8. Preble Hall. The only naval history podcast I know, so how can I not love it? I also assign this in classes.

7. Believed. This one is a short-ish series, and full disclosure, I haven’t actually listened to all the episodes yet–but it’s because they’re so heavy and hard to listen to. It’s about Larry Nassar and the sex abuse tragedy in USA Gymnastics. Phenomenally well-produced.

6. The Heist. A similarly short series, but I learned more about Steve Mnuchin than I ever wanted to.

5. Twenty Thousand Hertz. Between being an audio producer now and a lifelong amateur musician, I love this show. It ticks all the boxes. My kids are big fans of the Jurassic Park episode.

4. 99% Invisible. I’ve actually only just started listening to this one, but I listened to like 5 episodes in a row recently, which I think is a pretty good indication that I like it. Someday I’d like to get a story on 99% Invisible—still looking for the right pitch.

3. Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. This is actually the one show that I listen to within mere hours of its release almost every single week. It just makes me happy. It’s my life aspiration to be famous enough to be a guest for “Not My Job.” A ways to go before we get to that point, though (unless they’re looking for a person who produces a very low-volume niche podcast).

2. Throughline. Throughline is ONE of my favorite podcasts—Spotify wasn’t misrepresenting things. I have learned a lot through listening to this podcast, both about history and about podcast production.

1. Reply All. If you know me at all, you knew what this was going to be. Reply All is my favorite podcast and it’s not close. My favorite episode ever is still #116, Trust the Process (the Sports-Sports-Sports section), but I can’t think of a single episode I don’t like. Special shout-out to new host Emmanuel Dzotsi, who produced my favorite newer episode, #167, America’s Hottest Talkline.

Now, I listen to a LOT of podcasts. So narrowing down to just 10 was very challenging. Some honorable mentions include DIG: A History Podcast, Code Switch, Conversations at the Washington Library, and others that I’ve surely forgotten.

What are your top 10?

Why Assign Podcasts

I’m not a fully disinterested observer here; as you know, I am the host and executive producer of a podcast, so of course I want more people to listen to my podcast. But I think there’s a lot of value in assigning podcasts for students of history, of any age or schooling status. Here are a few reasons I think that.

Microphone in front of a waveform in an audio editor on a computer

Reason #1: Audio literacy

I wrote a whole blog post about this. Students receive a lot of news and information in audio format, and they need to be able to understand what they’re listening to. Listening is a skill—and one that transfers for listening to live events as well.

Reason #2: Difference

Listening to things can be fun, and podcasts often take a more approachable, conversational tone than the typical monograph. I’m not advocating that we remove all readings in favor of podcasts, but sometimes it’s nice to have a change of pace.

My students have said repeatedly this semester that, especially now, it’s really nice to have something that they don’t feel bad about not looking at. It’s not a video. It’s not a screen. They can fold the laundry or cook dinner while they listen.

Reason #3: Entrance into the historical discipline

You might think that podcasts are a lesser introduction to the historical discipline than a monograph or journal article. But many of my students need a ramp to get into the discipline, rather than a staircase. I don’t teach a lot of history majors; I do teach a lot of students who are just trying to escape other classes. I want the historical discipline to feel not-so-scary. And listening to a historian talk—even in historian-speak, as some historians do when they’re being interviewed—can be more approachable than reading that same historian’s written work. Best-case scenario is, of course, that the student then becomes interested in the book and goes and reads it (or you assign it! and talk about the differences).

And in our current moment of the collapse of humanities in higher education, it’s worth using our assignments to demonstrate that a book or article isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of historical achievement. There are other ways to be a historian; other ways to tell historical stories; other ways to teach.

Podcasts can also be a tool to introduce the craft of history without being explicitly “historical,” which is great for helping students see the connections between disciplines, and between past and present. I have a few podcasts that are go-tos for some topics like that (like Reply All, which I LOVE and I assign every semester when we talk about sources and proper attribution), but I keep an eye out for new podcasts all the time. I listen to a lot of podcasts.

But not all podcasts are created equal. I have a few parameters for the kinds of podcasts I tend to assign, though no hard and fast rules. Here are a few things that I consider before I put a podcast on my syllabus.

#1: Accessibility

This is the number one concern for me. Some students appreciate having something to listen to instead of watch or read, but some students aren’t able to listen to things, whether it’s because they have auditory processing issues, or, more likely, a loud and chaotic environment where concentrated listening is impossible. So I almost never assign a podcast that doesn’t have a transcript (and we model this at Consolation Prize).

#2: Interest

Some podcasts are boring. I almost never assign podcasts that I didn’t find personally interesting, because if I didn’t find it interesting (and I’m a historian), then I can’t really expect my students to maintain interest. I’m also one of those people who ditches podcasts very quickly if they’re not interesting, so if I don’t make it to the end of an episode, I don’t assign it.

#3: Challenge

I really like assigning podcasts that challenge a narrative or introduce something that will make students think about their ingrained beliefs. This doesn’t have to be extreme, but I want the students to have more questions when they finish the episode. This is why I tend more toward narrative podcasts than historian-interview shows, where it can sometimes feel like the historian has already said all there is to say about the topic at hand. We know that they haven’t, but generally they literally wrote the book on it, so it can feel very authoritative.

That’s it. I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons to assign podcasts, and a lot of other considerations when picking which ones to assign. I’m still working on how I get feedback and responses from students when I assign podcasts, but overall, between this semester and last semester, the response to podcasts has been overwhelmingly favorable. And the nice thing about podcasts is that new ones come out with much more rapidity than books or articles, so your syllabus can become quite dynamic as new stuff is released!

I’d love to hear how you’ve incorporated podcasts into your classroom!

Not-Monograph History

(Yes, I’m avoiding doing work on my actual monograph right now, along with a hundred other things.)

I’m deeply invested in the idea of creating (and learning) history through not-monographs. And in the past several months and years, I’ve been trying to put my money where my mouth is about this. I’ve been teaching not-monograph history for a while now, but this past year I’ve had a lot of opportunities to create my own history work that isn’t a monograph (though, full disclosure, I’m also writing a monograph).

I want to highlight just two things I’ve been involved in recently that highlight the really fun ways history can be done in a not-monograph. For one I’m the principal driver, but still part of a great team; for the other, I’m only the incidental consultant for another person’s great brainchild.

Consolation Prize

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media has recently given me the go-ahead to start a podcast! If you read this blog at all, you know I’m really into audio as a medium, but the time hasn’t been right to do more than just dabble. But the opportunity presented itself this summer to develop a podcast on a topic that I am interested in, and when I polled a few networks of historians, I found out that there’s quite a bit of interest out in the world too.

So Consolation Prize is a narrative podcast that investigates the lives and work of nineteenth-century American consuls. Diplomatic history might seem dry and boring (and to be honest, some parts of it kind of are), but consuls were the front line of diplomatic action. They engaged with the common Americans of all races that spread across the globe. We’ll be telling stories about murderers, cheats, liars, traitors, lovers, writers, naturalists, politicians, and so much more (and that’s only in the first few episodes!). Even if you think diplomatic history isn’t for you, I’d love it if you checked it out here.

The Shores of Tripoli

A while ago (I can’t even remember how long now), I was approached by a board game designer named Kevin Bertram. He was developing a new board game about the First Barbary War, and he was wondering if I’d play-test it for him.

Well…how often do you get to see a board game that’s about the exact historical event that you study? Unless you study World War II, probably not that often, if ever. So of course I said yes. And after play-testing it, I became a sort of unofficial adviser/consultant on the project. I ended up writing a very brief history of the war, which will be shipped with the game, and I offered advice about small things here and there.

This isn’t my game in any sense of the word, but I’m irrationally proud of it. It’s so fun to see a board game of the First Barbary War! You can watch the unboxing video here.

How to Listen to a Podcast for Class

Welcome to a college history class! You’ve probably learned strategies for reading books, articles, even blog posts (maybe). But in this class you’re going to listen to podcasts as a way to learn. So how do you do it?

Before we begin, there are some things you need to know.

Podcasts are not books

Podcasts are like books in a few important ways.

  1. Podcasts come in all shapes, sizes, and formats. No two podcasts are exactly alike in their form, just like no two books are written exactly the same way. Some podcasts are more like magazines, with lots of smaller segments that may or may not be related to each other. Others are more like monographs, where the whole podcast is one person talking about one thing. Both of these formats can be valuable, but they require different ways of listening.
  2. Some podcasts are boring. Just like some books are boring.

Podcasts are NOT like books in a few important ways.

  1. You can’t skip around in a podcast. You can’t flip to the index and then return back to the place you were. Now, this is mostly an important thing for podcasters to know–they need to do a good job of explaining themselves. But if they don’t, you’ll need a strategy for figuring things out before you get lost as the audio keeps barreling along.
  2. It’s hard to include references in the body of a podcast. There are no footnotes in audio. Again, this is mostly something you should note if you’re making a podcast. But it’s important for you to know as you listen, too. How is the podcast citing its sources, or is it citing them at all?

How to listen to podcasts

Just like reading books, there are several steps to actively listening to a podcast.

Before you begin

  1. Read the show notes (if they exist). This is kind of like reading the book jacket. Get a sense of what you’re going to be hearing. Try to figure out the premise of the whole podcast series, as well as the specific episode you’re listening to.
  2. Look at how long the episode is. Is this something you’re going to be able to listen to all at one go? Do you need to plan for a few sessions to get through it all? There is absolutely no rule that says you have to listen to a podcast in its entirety in one sitting. Take breaks if you need them!
  3. Find out whether your podcast has a transcript. If it does, that makes your job a lot easier. If not, then you’ll need to be a much more active listener.
  4. Get yourself some things to take notes on. You don’t need to take extensive notes, but you can’t write in the margins of a podcast, so you’ll need a pencil and paper or your computer.

While you’re listening

These things don’t necessarily occur in this order. You may find out some of these things at the outset, but you may also have to keep listening for the whole episode.

  1. Take notes on who’s talking. Is it one person (who are they? what is their deal?)? Are they talking to other people?
  2. If they’re talking to other people, why? What do the other people bring to the conversation? (This question is kind of like reading the footnotes.)
  3. Ask yourself: What is the thesis of the show? Why does this episode exist?
  4. As you listen, write down the key points of the narrative. How is the show proving its case?
  5. If you hear a word or phrase you’re not familiar with, pause the show, write down the word, and look it up.
  6. If you’re having a hard time following the story because you feel like you don’t have enough information, keep going for a few minutes–maybe they’ll explain more. If you’re still confused, pause the show and go do a little bit of background research. You probably don’t need to do more than ten or fifteen minutes of research on Wikipedia to get yourself up to speed. Then come back, back up the show to get yourself into the story again, and forge ahead.
  7. If something is confusing or unclear, but not enough for you to stop the show, write down your question. That question is a great thing to include in your listening response.

When the show is over

You’re not QUITE done when the show is over. Now it’s time to think about what you’ve heard.

  1. Ask yourself, did the show make its point? Was its thesis proved?
  2. Ask yourself, what was missing from this story? Are there things that still don’t add up or don’t make sense? Whose perspective was prioritized?
  3. Think about what specific parts of the show you remember. Why do you think those parts stick in your mind?
  4. Write (or record) your response. How can you connect what you heard to other parts of the course, or other parts of our world?

When to listen to a podcast

We all know that podcasts are great for listening to while driving in the car, cooking dinner, or running on the treadmill. If you like podcasts, you probably like them for the stories, the humor, the narrative.

Can you listen to a podcast for class while on the treadmill? Absolutely. You don’t necessarily need to have 100% of your attention on the podcast at all times. The podcasts that are best for listening to while doing other things are the ones that have great stories that you remember.

How do you know whether you’ve got a good podcast for distracted listening? Well, you don’t, until you start. Here’s a good rule: If you find that you’ve missed at least 30 seconds to a minute of the podcast because you zoned out, then right now isn’t the time to listen to it. Stop the podcast and listen to it another time.

If you’re missing chunks of the podcast because of interruptions, now might also not be the time to listen. BUT you can also just pause it while your kid asks for his hundredth snack of the day, or while you clean up the dog vomit in the corner, or while you throw your mask on when you see other people coming toward you on your run. Then resume once the crisis has passed.

If you can’t take notes while you’re listening, make sure you jot down some notes as soon as you can. And sometimes you might need to take another pass at a podcast that you listened to with distractions. Just like there’s nothing preventing you from reading a book multiple times, there’s no law that says you can’t listen to a podcast more than one time.

For this class, hopefully I’ve made podcasts that are interesting, and I’ve assigned other podcasts that are interesting. But you might not be that interested in some of them. That’s ok. All I ask is that you give them a listening ear for at least one full listen.

So that’s it! Enjoy! People have been learning with their ears since before there was writing, so by learning how to listen actively, you’ll be joining good company that spans the globe and the history of humanity.

Tell me in the comments the strategies you have for active listening to podcasts and other audio forms!

Resources for Innovation in Graduate Classes

I have very little experience in teaching graduate classes. Maybe my inexperience breeds anxiety about teaching them. When I teach my undergrad classes, I feel very little anxiety, even when I’m less prepared than I intend. Grad classes are the exact opposite. I could prepare for hundreds of hours for a grad class and I’m still terrified when I walk in the door, every single class period.

This coming fall, I’m teaching my second graduate class. This one has a topical theme (antebellum military history) but also has a methods flair (digital methods, but of course). I have never been good at leading discussion, so I was planning to really work on that skill this semester. But I think the discussion model is also partially the root of my anxiety, because not only am I not good at it, I’m not fully convinced that it’s the right approach.

The efficacy of discussion seems even more relevant now that this is an online class. I’ve talked to a number of graduate students about what worked for them in the pivot to online, as well as a number of faculty, and I got mixed responses. In my department, anyway, all the graduate instructors I talked to did synchronous class meetings; none tried any asynchronous elements. The faculty seemed to think the synchronous meetings went well and they thought the students liked them; the students I talked to had less rosy feedback, though none absolutely hated them.

This online opportunity strikes me as a moment ripe for some innovation in the way we teach (or, I should say, I teach) graduate classes. Our default is to try to duplicate the in-person approach on Zoom, but what if this were not the best approach even in person?

In all the graduate syllabi I surveyed to glean wisdom from, discussion was prioritized, and in some cases there was no evidence that any other method was used at all. And I’m not here to denigrate discussion. I do think it’s important to have an exchange of ideas and to evaluate a work in a free-flowing spontaneous way. But to be honest, I’ve taken a lot of grad classes, and I can count on one hand the number of times I had a discussion in a class that was so meaningful that I acted on it later.

Moreover, I think discussion can often silence or minimize voices that should be heard. There was one guy in several of my grad classes who had done a lot of theoretical reading before he came to the program, and he needed to let everyone know that he had. So even if he was not speaking (though he spoke A LOT), it was very intimidating to speak after him, and almost impossible to actually talk to him about what he had said because either (a) I had no idea what he was talking about, or (b) HE had no idea what he was talking about, or (c) both. In particular, female students have been conditioned to take a back seat to someone like that, when it’s almost certain that our perspectives would have been more interesting and generative than his.

So, how do we (and again, as they say in the churches I grew up in, I’m really preaching to myself here) achieve the goals we’re aiming for if discussion is stagnant or ineffective? Or, perhaps, how do we supplement discussion with other activities that can enhance the times when we do use traditional discussion?

As is my custom, I asked about this on Twitter, and here are some of the responses I got. Some of them deal with how to make discussion more effective; others offer alternatives to the discussion model. Pretty much all of these ideas came from more than one person so I haven’t credited anyone individually. I’ve tried to roughly categorize them, but it’s an inexact science.

You’ll also notice there aren’t a lot of ideas here. I got some great ideas for assignments but very few about in-class activities that aren’t discussion. These are also pretty humanities-centric, and even more specifically history-centric. Sorry. I follow historians on Twitter. ๐Ÿ™‚

Framing discussion differently
  • Assign shorter readings to be read in concert with each other instead of the “book a week” model. Then the discussion centers on connections between historians’ work, and students may have more varied opinions about how the works coalesce or diverge.
  • Mind mapping. I’ll confess that the one time I tried mind mapping it was a train wreck of epic proportions. I’d love to hear examples of how it can work well.
  • Do a think-pair-share or a modified think-pair-share. Your discussion doesn’t have to be the full class all the time. Have small groups discuss and then report back to the main class. (This would be possible with Zoom breakout rooms, etc. for a virtual session.)
  • More meta-level: I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book Generous Thinking recently, and one of the things that struck me from the book is her discussion of how students aren’t good at discussion because they’ve been trained to think adversarially about the readings. They jump straight to critique without actually understanding or engaging the argument of the reading, and as a result they underplay the ways in which scholarship builds on and enhances other scholarship. So I think laying some ground rules for discussion that starts with summary is a good way to reframe discussion as an actual exchange of ideas rather than a roast or takedown. Also, as my old orchestra teacher used to say, “Throw roses first, and then onions,” which seems like a pretty good principle for discussion and feedback of any kind.
  • Y’all already know I’m an aficionado of Slack, which is excellent for async discussion. Interestingly, no one mentioned any other forms of async discussion.
Alternative assignments
  • Ask students to develop (and deliver to their colleagues?) a mini-lecture for undergraduates based on the reading. This type of presentation helps them distill the main principles instead of jumping straight to critique or jargon-filled diatribes.
  • Ask students to evaluate and annotate a primary-source text for a critical edition or something similar. I think this is cool; I’m not sure how it works in class, exactly, and I also don’t remember a single instance of working in class on a primary source from my graduate-school career. This isn’t to say that you can’t do that, only that this seems to be another area where there’s been a failure of imagination, perhaps?

The moral of the story

There’s not much here. That’s the moral. We can do better. I can do better. The “class discussion leads to historiographical essay or research paper” model is dated, and it leads students down a very narrow skills path that almost definitely won’t align with the skills they need to have as a professional non-academic historian. So we need to change.

Perhaps we start by asking, what are we trying to teach our graduate students? are we doing job training? are we teaching them a richer mode of understanding? what do we want them to be able to do not just the day after they leave the class, but in a year, or a decade?

Are we also missing some opportunities by hitching our wagons to the synchronous model? Seminar classes do seem to lend themselves to synchronous interaction, but what if that was only a piece of what we did? My class is listed as synchronous, and part of it will be, but I’m planning to incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous pieces. How can we use this online moment to make changes to our approach that will benefit not just the online courses we’re teaching now but also the in-person courses we will, we hope, return to someday?

I am wrestling with these questions as I design my course for the fall. Stay tuned for my own plans, once I’ve figured them out.

What do you think? Do you have other in-class activities that work well for a graduate seminar? How do you make discussion more equitable or effective?

Flexibility in Asynchronicity

[Like my new word?]

I’ve decided to stop posting Twitter threads and instead use the tool God intended: blog posts.

I’m starting to knuckle down on course prep for the fall. You all know I’m 100% into asynchronous teaching, and I really don’t think there’s anything anyone could say to dissuade me. (This is, by the by, what I tell my students “bias” is: a belief that you hold, no matter what, even in the presence of countervailing evidence, though I don’t believe there is much countervailing evidence in this case.) But there’s one part of asynchronous teaching that I’m struggling to find a solution for: flexibility.

Flexibility within the semester

One of the great joys of teaching F2F is in pivoting your class time to discuss a topic that’s come up, or going off on a tangent based on a student question, or reframing your next lecture on the fly in response to current events. But in async teaching, you need a bit of lead time to get your materials prepared; you post them as completed pieces.

I’ve just been reading Joshua Eyler’s book How Humans Learn, and the first part of the book talks about using curiosity as a driving force for good teaching. The book has been tremendously thought-provoking and I’ve already thought of ways I’m going to increase the presence of curiosity in my courses. But in some ways, async teaching feels like it limits curiosity because of its nature.

Async teaching feels a little bit like the First Barbary War. In the war, the commodore was given instructions by the Secretary of the Navy to go do some stuff, and he was expected to do it. But by the time the commodore got to the Mediterranean, things looked very different. The commodore then had two choices: (1) try to follow his outdated orders, or (2) make his own plan, which may or may not be what the federal government wanted. Both of these options could be disastrous. If he followed his outdated orders, he might stumble into serious diplomatic crises. If he made his own way, then when the next set of orders arrived, he might be so far off the original track that it was impossible to obey the new ones.

This is kind of like async teaching. I spend a day or two recording my podcast lecture, developing the ways I want students to respond, and then I post it on the course website. But I try not to be recording and editing my talks at midnight the night before class, so sometimes–really, often–I have to record my next materials before I’ve seen my students’ responses to the previous chunk of material. Thus, I am writing my students’ new “orders” before I’ve received much feedback from them telling me what things I need to respond to. So I have to plow ahead with my original plan, and they have to either plow ahead with me, despite having turned in a different direction intellectually, or they have to go off on their own.

In this analogy, I’d prefer that the students took option 2, where they made their own choices and went down the paths that seemed right to them. But without knowing what they’re doing in real time, it’s hard to then craft the next set of “orders.” In 1802-1803, when multiple captains did what was right in their own eyes, they ended up going completely opposite and contradictory directions and made a lot of big errors. I, as the professor/SecNav, can’t possibly reel in ALL the threads.

Then there’s the time lag. If I’m not having these discussions in class, but as a discussion later on a board or in a chat room, that doesn’t leave much time for me to change tack for the next time I give them materials, sometimes no time at all. If a student responds in a thought-provoking way, but to materials we’ve already moved on from, how do I address it?

This problem is exacerbated because the students who do respond quickly are usually the ones who need the least direction from me. They’ve figured things out on their own. It’s the ones who don’t respond till the last minute–till it’s too late–that show me they need more help; they need me to revisit things or come at them from a different angle. But by the time I know that, we’ve already moved on.

So…how do you give students the opportunity to do their own inquiry while still maintaining at least nominal control on the class’s mission? (The class I’m especially concerned about has 45 students at present; the smaller the class, the easier to reel in all the threads, I’d imagine.)

Flexibility semester to semester

This problem is related to the idea of recyclability. Even though I’m pretty proud of most of the podcast episodes I made last semester, I don’t think I’m going to reuse any of them wholesale, because it’s a different time now. Things are really different for the students; they’re different for the world; they’re different for me.

So I bridle at the idea that online teaching is thus infinitely recyclable, which is how some higher ed pundits have been characterizing it. It’s infinitely recyclable only if you fully intend for your course to not speak to anything your students are dealing with, or any way in which your course materials speak to the present. If you don’t want your students to find your course memorable, or relevant, then sure, you can keep using exactly the same thing semester after semester. (I took a correspondence course in college that fits this description exactly; it probably hadn’t been changed in 10 years when I took it.) But I DO want my students to feel like I’m teaching to them, not to a nameless and faceless mass.

That said, developing an online course is a huge amount of work. I definitely don’t want to reinvent the wheel every single semester. So how do I maximize the use value of what I create this semester for subsequent semesters, without letting go of the flexibility I feel is needed to create a compelling course that speaks to students’ needs?

I don’t know if I’ve done a good job of explaining myself here, but I hope my point is clear: I want to be responsive to my students’ curiosity and needs. I’m struggling with how to do that effectively in an asynchronous environment. I would welcome any suggestions you have.