Show and Tell: BackStory with the American History Guys

For my show and tell post, I’d like to direct your attention to one of my favorite examples of scholars using new (and old) media to teach broad audiences about history.  BackStory with the American History Guys is a podcast produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and featuring historians Ed Ayers (19th century history guy), Peter Onuf (18th century history guy), and Brian Balogh (20th century history guy).  Ed Ayers was a trail blazer in the field of early Digital Humanities, creating the “Valley of the Shadow” online Civil War documentation project in the 1990s.  (Be prepared, this is seriously old-school now.)

BackStory explores issues that have persisted throughout American history, tracing the evolution of trends over time.  It’s dynamic, involving interviews with experts and interested layman callers.  Its creators also use the podcast’s website, twitter, and facebook pages to solicit questions about the week’s topic.  If you’re interested, visit the “In the Works” page, to weigh in on upcoming shows on epidemics, terrorism, and memorials. If your question is a good one, you might just be invited to ask it on the show.  In this format, I believe Ayers, Balogh, and Onuf strike a good balance between involving interested audiences and yet maintaining the authority of the historian.

Something the show does very well is interview experts and significant players in American memory making.  For example, the most recent episode “Born in the USA” featured an interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, whose work A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard came up earlier in this very class.  I was also very impressed by an interview Ed Ayers conducted for the “Coming Home: A History of War Veterans” show, in which he talks to Frank Earnest, a past commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans about the symbolism of the Confederate flag.  Baby Public Historians like myself spend a lot of time discussing how to handle sticky topics in American History, and Ayers provides an excellent example of how to do just that.  He politely exercises his historian’s authority, says “no sir,” and shuts down overblown Confederate claims of African American participation on the Confederate side of the Civil War.  On BackStory, history is complicated, but historians exercise their authority too.

Now is an especially exciting time to be interested in BackStory. On May 11th of this year they will transition from an on-again off-again podcast to a regular weekly one.  Give it a shot, and let me know what you think!


2 Replies to “Show and Tell: BackStory with the American History Guys”

  1. Thanks for sharing this post. I like the idea of historians sharing their knowledge with the public. Ed Ayers is deeply respected on the University of Virginia grounds, and now, on the University of Richmond campus. I will look forward to listening to his podcast.

    Regarding the Valley of Shadow website, he should be commended for getting the ball rolling by digitizing diaries, verbal histories and other accounts the War Between the States( as it is know in Richmond) and giving scholars an opportunity to explore this time period from two different perspectives, North and South. Although I did not take Ed Ayers when I attended UVa,(alas, I was an English major), I imagine that he would qualify the substance of his website by saying that it is limited to only two counties and their perspectives. I imagine that he would encourage scholars to cast their research nets wider to get a better sense of the impact of the War Between the States. For example, what are the views of the veterans from Caroline County, Virginia or Alleghany County, Pennsylvania and how do they compare with the ones he cites on his websites?

    That said, again, I believe he started this website so that others would follow, hoping that new websites would give a more complete picture of the War Between the States.

  2. Caitlin,

    I LOVE Backstory and Ed Ayers in particular. UVA and Ayers’ Valley of the Shadow Project blazed a trail for Civil War historians. Backstory’s podcast on air conditioning was fantastic, even though it sounds cold (ha!). They take these seemingly non-historical topics, and bring a level of analysis, expertise, and creativity to them. For the Vally of the Shadow Project, he chose those to counties to focus on with their proximity to each other and to juxtapose those counties’ experiences throughout the war. He presents an incredibly helpful model to develop this project for other counties, and other states have followed as well.

    I would pick up In the Presence of Mine Enemies, is you want more info on his conclusions from the project. The book is his scholarly list of conclusions and the traditional format of the information complied in Valley of the Shadow (for his colleagues who stubbornly refuse to use the internet for their research, and yes, there still are some of them).

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