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.


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. 🙂

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.


Tools for Asynchronous Discussion

In the fall, I’m teaching both my undergrad and grad class online (thankfully, GMU and the history department made this an easy and non-controversial choice, despite GMU’s plans to offer in-person classes). So I’m on the hunt for ways to enhance my asynchronous discussions. This post isn’t about what I’ve decided to do, but rather about all the options I’ve found. I’d love feedback on any of them, whether they’ve worked for you or not worked, or more options I haven’t yet listed.

One of the things I wrestle with every semester is asking students to register for or create logins for web platforms. I do it, but I sometimes feel uncomfortable about it and the students occasionally express discomfort as well. So perhaps with any of these tools, picking one or at most two to use in any given class is better than opening up the discussion to a very wide range of different types of discussion for the sake of more varied learning experiences.

Discussion Boards

  • Most LMSes have some sort of discussion board built in. GMU uses Blackboard, and there’s a discussion forum option there. I’ve used these before, but never as an actual discussion forum. I’m sure Canvas or what-have-you also has this.
  • Basecamp: I used Basecamp last semester to help keep myself and students organized in a large class project. It wasn’t a resounding success, but Basecamp does have a discussion board and chat-room function that could be useful if you wanted to build your whole class in Basecamp. (I’d imagine Trello, or any project management software like this, also has those features.)

Blogs with Comments

  • Blackboard also has a “blog” feature, which allows for internal blogging within the LMS. I’ve never used it and I never will, but it’s there.
  • WordPress course sites:
    • You could have one WordPress site for your whole class, where everyone writes blog posts and then others comment on them. (Examples of students blogging all on one site here and here; I know that I have been in classes where I was supposed to comment on other students’ work but at the moment I can’t find any examples.)
    • You could have individual WordPress sites for each member of your class, which is how I do things in HIST390; however, I’ve never made it a requirement for students to comment on other students’ work. This seems like a good idea except that I have no idea how I’d keep track of it.
    • [edit to add] A combo pack! Individual student blogs that aggregate to the main course blog, using the FeedWordPress plugin (thanks for the tip, Anelise Hanson Shrout!)
  • Tumblr: I’ve never used Tumblr at all, but I could see it having some value in the blog space.

Chat-like Discussion

  • Slack: I’ve used Slack a lot in classes and I like it. A downside to Slack is that it’s better for quick discussions; once you’ve moved on from a discussion, it’s hard to go back.
  • Discord: I’ve never personally used Discord, but for some purposes, it might be useful. I’ve heard people say it’s better than Slack but I don’t know if I believe them. 🙂 Discord is likely to be more familiar to some students than, say, Slack, because it is used by gamers. It looks and feels very similar.
  • Twitter: Many people say they use Twitter for chat or discussion. This has to be done with a lot of care, as it’s very public, but it could be done well if students are willing to engage on Twitter.


  • [edit to add] Hypothesis: A tool to annotate web texts; you can use it with a web extension or possibly in your LMS, if your institution has that capability. Students can respond to others’ annotations. (h/t Daniel Hutchinson)
  • Google Docs: I used Google Docs last year, providing the students with a transcript of my podcast lecture and then they had to add comments with sources or documents they found that addressed points in the lecture.


  • Flipgrid: This is a more personal way of doing discussion, with incorporation of video and graphics. I don’t know anyone who has already used it, but I know someone who is thinking about trying it.
  • TikTok: I’ve seen some pretty hilarious TikToks on historical themes that really show some historical understanding. It seems like a fun and approachable way of letting students reflect, and students tend to respond to these sorts of things.
  • Instagram: Do people use Instagram? I don’t know. But I could envision, in the right class, some interesting discussion being able to take place using Instagram.

Thoughts about all these

One of the other things I wrestle with constantly, particularly in the space that I teach is this: is my goal to teach students using new (to them) technology that’s well-suited for our questions and aims, or is it to show them how they can adapt and expand their use of technologies they already use? In other words, is it better for them to use WordPress, which they might need later in a job, or for them to use TikTok, which they already use, more effectively? This holds true for discussion as well. Do I want them to learn a new tool that is very well-suited for discussion (though tbh I don’t know if any of the ones listed above qualify for that), or do I want them to learn how to deform the tools they already know as a way of expanding their horizons that way?

I don’t know.


Revisiting Contract Grading

This past semester I tried contract grading for the first time. The class was a collaborative project, and I wanted grades to be less important than getting the collaboration done. I followed the lead of Ryan Cordell and designed parameters for grade contracts that the students could revisit halfway through the semester if they wanted to change their contracted grade.

I made a few changes from the other contract grading systems I’ve seen. Most prominently, I asked the students to add things to their contracts at the midpoint. I did this because the first part of the class was the “history” part and the second half was the collaborative podcast project. So I wanted them to write into their contracts the things they were going to do for the podcast.

I would not call this experiment in contract grading an unqualified success. I had a hard time keeping track of things (which is 75% on me because I’m not that great at keeping up with small things in classes), but more importantly I didn’t give the students options for meaningful penalties for breaking their contract terms. In the first half of the semester, I asked them to attend a certain number of classes in order to meet the terms of a grade. (I have changed my mind about this particular tenet of the grade contract anyway and it won’t be appearing in future iterations.) They each wrote in a penalty for missing classes, but it was impossible for me to know whether they assessed themselves the penalties or not. I know some didn’t. I need some way to know that students who don’t fulfill the things they’re supposed to actually do assess their own penalties, and that those penalties help them learn rather than just arbitrarily punish or humiliate.

But the main issue with contract grading in this class is that the entire class dynamic radically changed after the pivot to online. I stripped out the attendance policy. The students had a very hard time getting motivated, and I couldn’t bring myself to use a grade as a cudgel to get them to do what they were “supposed” to do. Instead, I resorted to pestering them and taking on a lot of work myself in order to get our project finished. Again, as I’ve said in a hundred places, I’m so proud of the work we did accomplish. But it could have been so much better.

That said, I’m not sad that grades were completely on the back burner for the semester. I firmly believe that the students produced better work than they would have if they had been motivated by point-based grades instead of a simple desire to do well.


Where contract grading absolutely succeeded turned out to be in my large class, HIST390, which had 46 students. I didn’t start out doing contract grading in that class, because it’s really big for that kind of thing. Contract grading feels very individualized, and I just couldn’t see how it would work in a bigger class.

But during the two weeks we were planning for the move to online, I realized that contract grading was going to give the class the flexibility it so desperately needed. One of the things I’ve always hated about 390 was the grading. It always felt awful to take points off of assignments and then just move on. But I couldn’t think of a better way.

While we were out for our extended spring break, I decided that maximum flexibility and maximum compassion were my new mantras. What that looked like in my syllabus is multiple chances for each assignment, and the ability to drop assignments as a student needed to. Enter contract grading. I set up a system whereby students contracted to do several small projects and the final project for an A, one small project and the final project for a B, and just the final project for a C (with a few other minor stipulations).

I also scrapped the points system and instituted a completion system. A student got credit for having done an assignment once I (or my TAs) was happy with it; if it didn’t meet the standard, I sent the student feedback and they resubmitted. Because no students had to do ALL the projects in order to get an A, students were given the opportunity to skip projects that they might struggle with, which I think cut down on the number of redos we asked for.

We even did this on the final project. Maybe 10 out of 46 students had to do one resubmission; none had to do more than one. Only one student didn’t turn in a final project.

The general quality of the projects was much better this year than in semesters past. I attribute this to two things: I gave clearer instructions and tutorials this semester than in semesters past (thanks, online learning), and the reduced grade pressure gave students freedom to be more adventurous and more creative. Some students really, really shined.

In the students’ reflections about the semester, the grade contract system came up frequently. Students wrote that this system felt compassionate and flexible, and many students wrote that they really enjoyed doing the projects because of the low point stakes.

From my point of view, I felt much less pressure to be constantly hounding students or worrying about when they were going to turn stuff in. I gave them deadlines but made it clear that those deadlines were soft because, without points, the system wouldn’t break if the grades didn’t get “recorded” in a timely fashion. Grading was also a LOT more fun when I just had to give feedback without figuring out how many points a mistake or misunderstanding was going to cost a student.

So, will I do grade contracts again in HIST390? Absolutely yes. My system will be slightly more rigorous in the fall when we are online from the beginning, but the basic tenets of flexibility and compassion will be the same. The students learned better, I felt better, what’s not to like? I’ll be incorporating more discussion and analysis-based requirements, but I’ll again give students the option to make the grade that works for them.


Uncharted: American Expeditions

This semester my students made a podcast. I just realized that though I’ve talked a lot about the podcast, I haven’t actually linked to the podcast here. So here it is, for all three of you who read my blog.

I’m super proud of how the students did on this assignment despite the many, many barriers to their success. So here’s my request: if you listen to one or more of the episodes (and you should!), would you please leave a comment for the students on their episode’s post on their blog here?

One of the things that’s cool about a podcast like this is that the students can keep interacting with it after the class is done, and I hope they will, if people listen and have questions.


In Praise of Generosity

It’s been a hard eight weeks. There’s a lot to be angry or sad or anxious about. But I want to remember the joys and successes of this time as well. So here’s a few of those.


This semester, I proposed a course that was a grand experiment on a number of levels. It was going to be a course in which our final product was a collaboratively produced podcast series. I was going to use contract grading as a way to emphasize the collaborative nature of the course. We would be learning how to be a whole podcast team, not just the writers but also the hosts, producers, editors, publicists, and all. (Not the musicians–more on that in a moment.) I purposely set myself up as less a professor and more an executive producer. I wanted this podcast to be my students’ vision, not mine.

Grand experiment turned out to be an understatement. But in the process of completing our podcast, the word “collaborative” took on a whole new meaning (listen here).

I made a podcast episode about how we made this work, which you can hear here. But I want to talk in this blog post about what this semester has meant to me personally.

Interior Collaborators

I planned two forms of collaboration for the class from the start. First of all, unlike many other classes the students had taken before (certainly in history, anyway), the goal for the class was one project that everyone contributed to. Everyone’s work was in collaboration with another student, for the whole semester. All of them were in an episode team, and I asked a few of them to volunteer to take on extra duties, like logo design, web design, and intro and credits reader.

I think this collaboration was working great before the break, when students could talk to each other during class. After the break, when we had to rely on online connections, it was a lot harder.

Our other primary collaborators were the composers of the New Sound Collective. My friend Andrew Cote is the director of this group of student composers, and he and I hatched up a plan whereby some of his students would write music for my students’ podcasts. Again, the move to online proved a little complicated, but the composers were incredibly generous and flexible. And I have to say that the music really makes these episodes shine.

One of the things I appreciated the most about both my students and the students in the NSC was their willingness to return to things and do them again or differently if needed. I asked them for a lot of changes and additions, and they not only did them, but they did them quickly and (as far as I could tell anyway) cheerfully. Rather than just doing the minimum, they were generous with their time and skills to make their work better (and to graciously take critique from me–not an easy task!).

Exterior Generosity

As we moved into online space after the break, it became clear that the students’ motivation level was very low. So I had to throw myself on the generosity of people outside our class and the university in order for us to finish our work.

The first external act of generosity happened because of a serendipitous Twitter interaction. On Twitter, Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, offered to virtually visit any class that wanted him to. I jumped at that chance, but I’ll admit that I was shocked when he actually said he’d do it! I can’t really overstate how much his visit meant to me and to the class. It provided a vital boost to our class that was, if I’m honest, pretty demoralized.

Not only was Peter’s act generous, but he also pointed us toward another very generous member of the NPR family: Steve Inskeep. Steve recently wrote a book about an American explorer, John Fremont (which you should read; it’s great), and when Peter asked if he’d be willing to come talk to us as well, he said yes immediately. He talked to us about exploration, and about telling stories via audio, and was generally a real pleasure to talk to. And then HE sent us to yet another generous member of the NPR family: the hosts of Throughline.

The next week, Rund Abdelfatah from Throughline joined us. In some ways, her experience was the most relevant to our work, coming from a history podcast with two hosts that don’t record in the same space. Rund had a lot of really practical advice for us about setting up our episodes and telling them well.

I honestly still can’t believe that we ended up with three NPR hosts in our virtual classroom. I’m probably a super-nerd, but those are the only kind of celebrity I ever want to meet, and the students have expressed many times how amazing it was to talk to them.

But the generosity of external people didn’t stop there. When it became clear that the students’ time and effort needed to be focused on the main content of their episodes, I turned to people outside our class to fill out the pieces that would help polish the episodes. I asked people on Twitter and my family and friends to do voice acting for the primary sources that would ground our episodes. And they came through. I LOVE the voice work that so many people did.

Our voice actors were Andrew Garland and Doug Garland (my brother and dad), Paul Matzko (a friend I grew up with), Kellen Funk (a friend from college), Nate Sleeter (a friend from GMU), and Rick Felty and Daniel Hutchinson (friends from Twitter, more or less).

I am so, so grateful for all the work that other people did in order to make our podcast happen. None of them were in any way obligated to do so. And though I know most of them did it because they had a connection to me, the students are so appreciative. I think it’s really important for students to see how generous people can be, and they saw that in spades this semester.

Special Shout-out

I mentioned him up at the top, but the person in this story whose generosity shines above all others is Andrew Cote. Not only was he willing and eager to do our collaborative project from the beginning, he was there to prod his students when needed, enhance their work when needed, and also commiserate through a flurry of text messages and emails about all the challenges and opportunities of this project. And then he went above and beyond by agreeing to write some extra music for me so I could make the “Making of” episode. I really could not have led this project without his encouragement and generosity.

So what’s the moral here?

I don’t know. I don’t know what the moral is. I ended up doing a TON of work for this class because I was committed to actually having a product at the end. I didn’t have a plan B. In retrospect, maybe I should have. I learned a lot this semester. The students told me they learned a lot, despite everything, about how an actual job using history might work. (I think they were inspired by both our work and by our conversations with the NPR hosts.) That was encouraging.

This post feels sort of rambly. But the key takeaway I got from this class is that, insofar as they’re able, students will rise to the occasion, particularly if their grades aren’t on the line, and that people can be extremely generous. I’m grateful for both of these things.