To Fix a National Character: The United States in the First Barbary War, 1800-1805

At long last, my first monograph is available for pre-order! You can buy it through Johns Hopkins UP (the publisher) or any number of other establishments that sell books.

It’s a book about the First Barbary War, and how the United States tried to use its conflicts with the Barbary states to enter the Mediterranean community. It’s about how defeating Tripoli was less important than making nice with the Europeans in the area. It’s about how the brand-new US Navy and the brand-new consular service worked in concert—or in contention—with each other, trying to achieve similar goals with very little coordination or common instruction from the federal government.

There are stories of battles and captures, of duels and backstabbing, of impossible missions and unlikely friendships. There are some characters you will love to hate. There are some characters whose reputation needs a little rehabilitation. Lots of characters don’t live up to their potential, but some do. There are sad stories of death and loss, and there are triumphant stories of success against the odds.

In the end, the First Barbary War was a deeply unsatisfying war for the American combatants. Very little was achieved on a national scale, though individuals in the war capitalized later on the lessons they learned. So this book focuses on the small stories that made up a small war.

If you like the navy, or early American history, or diplomacy, or maritime history, maybe you should buy this book. 🙂

If you would like me to come give a talk about my book, whether live, on a podcast, or through some other venue, please reach out as well!

End-of-Year Episode Roundup

Last year I talked about the podcasts I loved in 2020. This year, I wanted to call out specific episodes I’ve listened to that have impacted me in some way. These are in no particular order, except for the #1 episode that has had the most impact on my life this year. I’ll put that at the bottom.

I listen to a lot of podcasts (I recently learned that my listening habits would put me in the category of “super listener”), and it’s been a really long year, so I probably listened to some equally good ones early in the year that I’m not recalling right this second.

These podcast episodes aren’t “the best” episodes I heard this year, necessarily; they’re ones that I connected to on some kind of personal level. I’ll explain how I connected for each episode.

“The Things We Do to Women,” The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (Christianity Today)

I grew up in a part of evangelicalism that disdained folks like Mark Driscoll and his brash and arrogant form of pastoring, but this episode about how he talked about women and sexuality still hit me really hard. It wasn’t hard to draw a straight line from the way that he talked about these topics and how I was taught them. Of all the ways that Mark Driscoll harmed his congregation, the things discussed in this episode are, to me, the most egregious, and very similar teachings have had real negative effects in my own life. [Content warning: sexuality, crudeness]

“Neglect of Duty,” On Our Watch (NPR/KQED)

This whole series was gutwrenching, but this episode was, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful. Many of the episodes in the series are about how police overstep their bounds, but this episode is about how one particular California police department shirked their duty to keep kids safe. It’s well-reported and beautifully designed. It will likely make you angry.

“Susan David: Toxic Positivity,” Everything Happens (Kate Bowler)

Recently I’ve been getting very frustrated at how many people say things like “Are you ready for this super hard thing? Yes or yes?” or “I just want my kids to know that if you work hard enough, or you believe in yourself enough, you can do anything.” That’s just nonsense. So when this episode crossed my feed, I was ready to be Amen-ing all over the place about how terrible toxic positivity was. Instead, I found myself doing a little bit of Amen-ing, and a lot of thinking about how I force myself and, more importantly, my kids to always have a good attitude–to not allow us our full range of emotions. I came away from the episode with a true desire to notice and understand and allow us all to have moments where we’re just not happy, or not feeling positive about our lives. Do I still make my daughter empty the dishwasher? Yes, yes I do. But now I try to check the impulse to say, “And you better have a good attitude about it.” It’s a long process, but this episode helped me to think about my own buy-in to toxic positivity and how to change it.

“What We’ve Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate,” This American Life

The very first part of this episode had me weeping copious tears in my car on the way to school. I think it’s going to be a long time before we understand all the ways covid-19 has changed education, but the costs are more than just physical.

On the flip side, this episode moved through some more compelling stories and ended up a joyous and hilarious note of how Amelia Bedelia might have dealt with work-from-home, which reminded me that even in a moment of tremendous anxiety, sorrow, and loss, we can still sit back sometimes and just laugh at the absurdity of it all.

“From Pigs and Chickens to OP-60: The Naval Career of Peter M. Swartz,” Preble Hall

This one makes my list this year because it is literally the very first thing I have ever listened to/read/watched that made me interested in the Vietnam War. Peter Swartz is such a lovely person, and he is such a great storyteller who made me actually want to know more about Vietnam, which has never happened before. I’ve thought about this episode a lot since it aired.

“Drone Wars,” Throughline

Since I teach military history classes, I’m always looking for good sources about the history of the military, and this episode did such a good job of dealing with not only the history of the technology of drones, but also the ways in which people have dealt with using them. I’ll likely be assigning this in both my digital history and military history classes, because it really gets at some of the big questions of both disciplines: what are the ethical ramifications of development in technology?

The Number One Most Impactful Episode of 2021

I listen to a LOT of podcasts, so it’s pretty unlikely that any one episode will have a serious impact on my life. But this year, there was one. It is…

“The Clinch,” 99% Invisible

This is an exploration of the covers of romance novels. That probably doesn’t sound that interesting. But I had never read a “secular” romance novel before I listened to this episode, I don’t think. I grew up in a very conservative environment so all the romance novels were Christian romances, and they were not great. (Even those novels had their version of the clinch, though!)

Since that episode dropped in June 2021, I have read, according to my library history, at least 165 romance novels. I have read all of the library holdings for authors such as Mary Balogh, who I now love. I now read some or even all of a romance novel nearly every day as a way to unwind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this episode helped me get back into reading for fun, something I hadn’t done in quite a while.

So I’d have to say that this episode was the one thing I listened to this year that affected my life the most—and definitely for the better.

If you listen to the episode, you’ll know all the different iterations of the clinch, so I have to say, I like the newer graphic covers better than the traditional clinch.

30 Days of Podcasts

Arielle Nissenblatt challenged folks on Twitter to do #podcast30, which is listening to one podcast every day and posting about it. Naturally I’m all in for such an endeavor. So I’ll be updating this post every day with my listen for that day, along with my brief comments (which I’m also posting on Twitter).

Day 1: “Living,” from Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (George Washington’s Mount Vernon)

One of the most interesting things I learned from this episode is how much archaeology can tell us about what feels like the recent past. Archaeology is an amazing way to reclaim the stories of those who don’t show up in the archival records as real people–in this case, the enslaved communities at Mt. Vernon. This episode is well worth a listen (and assigning in your early America classes!).

Day 2: The Shrink Next Door (Wondery/Bloomberg)

I’ve been seeing ads on Apple TV for the new TV adaptation, and so I decided I’d give this show a listen, assuming I’d hate it, be annoyed by it, or be underwhelmed by it. Instead, I binged the first 3 episodes, only stopping last night because I didn’t want to accidentally go to sleep & miss something. It’s a bonkers story and it’s very well done. Very much in the @WonderyMedia style, which isn’t always my favorite, but it totally works for this. Would definitely recommend–but listen while you’re doing something like driving or not using your brain for other things (like grading); you’ll miss stuff.

Day 3: “The Supreme Court Considers the Future of Roe,” The Daily (New York Times)

Today my podcast is one that every already listens to, but I’m a newcomer to: @nytimes The Daily. I listened to Thursday’s episode on the way home from work today. The topic was a very, very contentious one. the SCOTUS abortion case. The host and guest did a great job of reporting the facts of the hearing without taking sides or making political statements. That seems like a model that news podcasts should follow (more than many do). From a technical perspective, of course the sound design is great. I really like how they layer the archival footage, the guest’s voice, and the host’s voice, and I esp. noticed the effectiveness of silence. Well done @stavernise!

Day 4: “Circe,” Greeking Out (NatGeo Kids)

It’s Day 4 of #podcast30! I was out and about with my 10yo most of today, but we did listen to one show (her absolute favorite): Greeking Out from @NGKids . We are so sad that it’s the end of the season! The stories are entertaining for kids and adults. The show is mostly about Greek mythology, but I’ve liked the embrace of other mythologies this season as well. Also the theme tune to this show will suddenly pop into my head at the most inopportune tunes, and yet I can never be quite mad about it.

Day 5: “Aftermath,” The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (Christianity Today)

For Day 5 of #podcast30, I’m listening to the (presumably) final episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, “Aftermath.” I have a LOT of thoughts and feelings about this show, both its subject matter and its production. I appreciate @MikeCosper‘s work on this show. I’ll likely write a much longer blog post about it in the near future. But for now, I’ll say that, despite what I see as some serious defects in the show, It’s still well worth a listen, esp. if you have connections to evangelicalism.

Day 6: “Cool things about scales and implicature,” Lingthusiasm (Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne)

For Day 6 of #podcast30, I listened to @lingthusiasm, a show that scratches my “I almost became a linguist” itch. In this episode, they’re talking about scales and their implications (scales like temperature and certainty, not lizards). I loved this episode both because it’s just really interesting, and also because it reminded me that my high school algebra teacher always said “a couple or three” to indicate some kind of precision that really wasn’t warranted, and we all knew it was just pretension. 🙂

Day 7: “A History of Recipes and Cookbooks,” Past Present (Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Neil Young)

For Day 7 of #podcast30, I listened to the most recent episode of Past Present. Not gonna lie, this one’s not for me. I didn’t think the episode was easy to follow, and I found myself disagreeing with the hosts on a number of occasions.

Day 8: “Alaska Territorial Guard in World War II,” Unsung History (Kelly Therese Pollock)

For Day 8 of #podcast30, I listened to a much more interesting history show than yesterday: @Unsung__History ! I listened to the recent episode about the Alaska Territorial Guard, which I’ll be honest, I had never heard of at all. This is such an interesting story about how Native people were involved in WWII through the territorial guard in Alaska, which wasn’t yet a state. Some Native people were able to leverage their service there for good, but they also faced bizarre forms of discrimination. Bonus: a digital history project about the ATG! Check out the great resources in the show notes.

Day 9: Radioactive (Andrew Lapin)

For Day 9 of #podcast30, I have another bing listen. I’m not quite done, but I’ve listened to 7 episodes of Radioactive over the past 3 days. It’s about Father Charles Coughlin, noted antisemitic Roman Catholic priest. An interesting story (feels like right up @PMatzko ‘s alley) about a radio celebrity with a very inflammatory message. Well produced and well told by @AndrewLapin.

Day 10: “Danger!”, The Green Tunnel (R2 Studios)

My Day 10 listen for #podcast30 might be cheating a little bit, but I listened to “Danger!” from @GreenTunnelPod (which I am the executive producer of). It just came out this week and it’s pretty fun. If you’ve ever planned a long-ish hike or backpacking trip, you’ve probably gotten some wildly disparate advice about how to deal with dangers on the trail. We might not give you the RIGHT answers in this episode, but we’ll give you some historical answers!

Day 11: “A Glimpse at ‘How the Other Half Eats,'” Code Switch (NPR)

Forgot to tweet yesterday for Day 11 of #podcast30 but I listened to @NPRCodeSwitch about food and how we relate to food and family. I definitely had a few epiphanies about how I feed my kids as a response to how I was raised!

Day 12: The Incomparable Game Show (The Incomparable Radio Network)

Today for Day 12 of #podcast30 I listened to something silly and fun: @theincomparable Game Show! I like these shows because sometimes you just need to decompress a little and be a little silly.

Day 13: Day off… too busy producing Consolation Prize

Day 14: “God and Morality in American Politics,” Now and Then (CAFE Media)

For Day 14 of #podcast30 I listened to Now and Then from @voxmedia, with @HC_Richardson and @jbf1755. Since this show started, it has made me really happy to see a history show hosted by historians near the top of the podcast charts. In the most recent episode about religion and morality, @jbf1755 and @HC_Richardson talk about how religion permeates the American experience in other ways than just church and state. I do have a very different take on the Tripoli treaty discussed, but that’s a small thing.

Day 15: “Aural Exam,” Twenty Thousand Hertz

For Day 15 of #podcast30, I listened to the delightful end-of-year episode from @20korg. I never know the mystery sounds, but it was fun to hear people guess them (sometimes with as wild a guess as I would have made). Twenty Thousand Hertz is one of those shows that I’m always trying to find a story to pitch to, because I just love how @d_llas tells stories and of course the sound is ridiculously good.

Day 16: “The Monster of We,” Throughline (NPR)

For Day 16 of #podcast30 I listened to the best immersive narrative history podcast, @throughlineNPR. Today’s episode is about Ayn Rand, whom I dislike exactly the same as before I listened to the episode. 😂 This is the brilliance of @throughlineNPR : I despise Ayn Rand. I still do after listening to the episode. But I still found the episode enlightening and enjoyable to listen to, and worth my time.

Day 17: “Get Vaccinated, 1871,” Sam’s Shorts (Mark Twain House and Museum)

For Day 17 of #podcast30 I’m listening to the brand-new Sam’s Shorts from @TwainHouse , hosted by @erin_bartram. Twain has showed up on my podcast as well, so I’m excited to follow this show as it unfolds. So far it’s good! Somehow it’s comforting that Mark Twain was a vaccine enthusiast. 🙂

Days 18 – 26: Visiting family, and people frown on listening to podcasts while you’re supposed to be having family time

Day 27, number 1: “Digitally Deconstructing the Constitution,” Conversations at the Washington Library (Mount Vernon)

Let’s start with Conversations at the @GWBooks ! I listened to my friend @JamesPAmbuske talk about a very interesting digital project about the construction of constitutions with Dr. Nicholas Cole. This was such a great episode because it highlighted both the complications of reconstructing a complex and months-long event (the Constitutional Convention) in this case, and also the interesting ways in which we can use digital methods to figure some of that stuff out. It also highlights the amazing potential for cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaborations. I loved hearing about the Quill Project’s collaborations with undergraduates!

Day 27, number 2: “Rosa Parks: Myth and Memory in the American Civil Rights Movement,” Dig: A History Podcast

My second show for Day 27 is @dig_history. I listened to the most recent episode about Rosa Parks. I was nodding along as the hosts discussed how Rosa Parks has often been depicted as someone who was just tired and so accidentally sparked a whole thing. That was definitely how I was taught about Parks, but the episode goes into amazing detail about how Parks fit into a much larger movement and how she was already an activist before that fateful day on the bus.

Day 27, number 3: “Consuls and Anthros and Diplos, Oh My!: Diplomatic, Historical, and Anthropological Views on First Contact,” The Joint Geeks of Staff

My next rec for Day 27 of #podcast30 is @TheJointGeeks . I was on an episode recently which I’m just now getting to listen to, about first contact and diplomacy in scifi and history. I had to leave halfway through the conversation, but @IBBoley did a great job of stitching everything together and editing so that it doesn’t sound that way. Plus, consuls and space, what’s not to love?

Day 28: “Mini-Stories, Volume 12,” 99% Invisible (SiriusXM)

For Day 28 of #podcast30, I’m going back to @99piorg for their first mini-stories episode for this year. I look forward to these episodes bc my whole life as a historian is “This is such a great story but there’s not a whole book/article/episode here.” If I ever teach my graduate class on Podcasting for Historians, our major project will be to select a newspaper issue from #ChroniclingAmerica and each student will have to produce a story about one of the elements in that day’s newspaper, a la the mini-stories from @99piorg.

Day 29: “China 101,” Pod Save the World (Crooked Media)

It’s Day 29 of #podcast30! As you may know (😂😂😂) I run a show about 19c US consuls. But my knowledge of modern diplomacy is pretty lacking. So I listen to a couple of shows to get me up to speed. Today’s pick is one of those: Pod Save the World. More people listen to the other Pod Save show (I think), but I like this one better. In this episode, @TVietor08 et al talk about the political situation in China and why we should be paying attention to what’s going on there. Well worth a listen as #Beijing2022 approaches.

Day 30: “The 300th Episode,” Unorthodox (Tablet Magazine)

Today I listened to the 300th episode of Unorthodox from @tabletmag. I’ve already talked about this show on Day 10. But I wanted to give it another shout-out here. I’m not Jewish. But I started listening to the show in part because I had a realization about how much antisemitism I was raised with, and how deeply it is ingrained in me. This show has been so delightful, and so helpful for me as a Gentile who needs to understand more about Jewish culture and the multitudes it contains. It’s a really hilarious and thought-provoking show. Highly recommend.

A New Gig: R2 Studios

I have a new title: head of studio. At RRCHNM we’ve just spun off a new unit, which we’re calling R2 Studios. Its purpose is to create deeply researched historical audio stories, which you might call “history podcasts.”

As the person at the Center with the most podcasting experience, I’ve been tapped to lead this effort. I’m very excited for all of the opportunities this new studio will bring to folks at the Center, particularly graduate students.

So what is my actual job? Most of it is doing what I already do: produce and create podcasts. Consolation Prize is still going (new episodes out at the end of October), and I’m also helping to produce a new show, The Green Tunnel, about the history of the Appalachian Trail.

Thankfully, I’ll be leaving behind some of the tasks I currently do: the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has given RRCHNM a large grant, a portion of which is going to hire someone to work with me on podcast production and someone else to do marketing and community engagement. Hopefully that means that I’ll be able to hand off some of the technical work and almost all of the marketing (which I’m very bad at). That will free up my time to focus on making the very best stories we can make.

I also get to help bring new shows into the studio. We’re open to pitches for shows from both folks internal to the center and outside the center, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to greenlight some great new shows in the coming months.

If this board is any indication, people here at the center are excited about podcasting!

All shows that we greenlight will get lots of hands-on training, much of which will either be taught by me or facilitated by me.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about the studio in the upcoming weeks and months. You can check out our website, and soon we’ll have more ways that you can support our efforts. In the meantime, the best way to support R2 is to go and listen to our shows!

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 Févret de Saint-Mémin. 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 😉 ). 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. 🙂

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 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.