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!