Print Project Proposal: Historians React to Period Shows

Have you ever wondered how historically accurate a period show is on TV? How does the historical accuracy or inaccuracy affect audience’s perceptions of the past? As a person who loves history and history TV shows, I am curious about these questions as well. I remember talking to one of my favorite undergraduate professors and colleagues at the Omohundro Institute about our feelings on period shows. In this project proposal, I will endeavor to uncover what historians think about these popular period shows: Bridgerton (Netflix), Turn: Washington’s Spies (AMC), Little House on the Prairie (NBC), Downton Abbey (PBS Masterpiece), and Deanwood (HBO). Their thoughts on historical accuracy can pertain to any of the following: set design, clothing, historic words and phrases, shooting location, and accuracy of events and their impacts in the show, such as the American Revolution’s effects on families across what would become the United States.

In regards to the TV shows I chose, I want to analyze shows that are set in different time periods. In this way, multiple historians with different specialties can have their reactions analyzed. I also wanted to choose TV shows from multiple different networks and streaming services instead of just one to observe if there is any variation present in how these shows display the historical time period they are set in. For instance, is there a difference between how AMC and HBO show history, such as which network has more historically accurate content? Additionally, I wanted to choose popular TV period shows from different decades that they were aired in to observe if the era they aired had an effect on how they displayed history. For instance, how did producing Little House on the Prairie in the 1970s impact how that show displayed 1870s America to audiences? What would be different if it was aired today?

In order to analyze what historians have been and are discussing about these popular shows, I will send out a survey to historians I know who are interested and/or have their specialty in that time period, as well as historians who have researched period TV shows. For instance, I will send the survey to one of my professors at William & Mary who was in an episode ofTurn and has a strong research interest in clothing, dancing, and Regency Era Britain. I can also send the survey to my former colleagues at the Omohundro Institute, especially for Turn as it takes place in Colonial America. After sending out those surveys, I will also ask if they know any other historians who have strong feelings about these TV shows and/or are specialists in that particular time period and place. In this way, I could analyze their various reactions to these popular TV shows and what they are correctly and incorrectly conveying to audiences.

Additionally, I would also utilize Twitter. During my time at the Omohundro Institute, I learned from historians who worked there that Twitter is a great place for historians. It is a place where historians share their work, share their research and sources, and share their thoughts on current events, including TV shows. For example, I could search for the Twitter accounts of prominent historians in that particular field and view their posts if they discussed one of the period TV shows I want to analyze. I can also follow different hashtags to view the conversation, such as the hashtags of the show’s name and others, such as #HistoryFail, #HistoryTVShow, and others. While this would be more time consuming and includes the reactions of non-historians, this method would be another avenue to collect data on how historians are reacting to these popular shows.

I can also analyze history blogs. For example, Commonplace – the blog run by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture – published a piece in July 2015 pertaining to a William & Mary Education/Film & Media Studies professor’s reaction to the accuracy of Turn. Additionally, the panel who edited and published the article had historians on it. Blogs written and moderated by historians personally and from academic presses would be another avenue of analyzing historian’s reactions to the period TV shows I have chosen to study.

In an increasingly digital world, it is important to analyze how history is being portrayed to audiences. People learn about history and historic topics from places outside of the classroom, such as TV. Therefore, it is important to analyze those TV shows as to how they are portraying the past to audiences around the world. If those TV shows are not producing an accurate depiction of history, what does that say about the contemporary society’s feelings towards that time period? How will it affect people’s thoughts and sense of the past?

-Meredith Jackson

Print Proposal – A Regional Analysis of US Nationalism

Nationalism is ever-present in the world today, with nation-states functioning as the basic building block of the international political system at least since the end of World War II, perhaps centuries earlier depending on who you’re talking to. While most of the time nationalism is largely talked about in terms of conservative politics, in reality it’s a universal political tool for people and parties all around the world.

Nationalism is based on the idea that there is one unifying identity that makes people in and from the United States fundamentally American. When investigated, however, it’s quite clear that what is considered “American identity” shifts depending on who is asked and when. While nationalist rhetoric is centered around the idea of stability and sameness, it’s highly adaptable and hard to concretely define. For this project, textual analysis will be used to pull out the broad strokes of what is considered a staple of American identity in different regions in the United States. National identities are constructed through (among other things) a construction of history that makes those identities seem timeless or inevitable, but different regions in the United States have vastly different histories and ways they teach and display those histories. I suspect this means that nationalist rhetoric found in the Northwest versus the Southeast versus the Northeast and so on all focus on different elements of regional histories and identities. By analyzing the language from political leaders and organizations separated by region, it will be easier to see both common aspects of American national identity, and any differences in emphasis between people in different regions.

There are several ways to break up the United States into regions based on several different factors. In a quick search, there are maps that have anywhere from four to nine regions in the United States when limited to splits along state lines, maps that ignore formal state lines can have regions well into the double digits. For the purpose of this project, I’m going to use five regions that will be separated from each other along state lines, which will ensure there’s some specificity and to keep central to the project the importance of borders in the construction of national identity. The texts that will be analyzed will be speeches and published writing from politicians and political organizations in each region, as those are the people and groups with the most direct involvement in crafting national identity and using it for their political goals. It also bears repeating that nationalism is not only used in conservative politics, but all mainstream political parties in a nation-state system, so the selected texts will come from politicians and organizations of all political orientations.

National identity is generally accepted as at least somewhat fundamentally true or important, in personal and psychological terms of identity and community formation for individuals, but also in more seemingly innocuous government functions. Whether you can travel to certain places, get certain benefits, participate in elections, and more are all regulated by the national identity attributed to each person at birth. While national identity is ubiquitous in the world today, it is not neutral or natural. It is constructed and utilized by power structures and power holders for explicit political ends. By exploring what constitutes “American identity” in different regions of the country, it is possible to illustrate the fundamentally artificial nature of national identity and nationalism, and make the language, context, and goals of people and groups that utilize nationalism more clear and concrete. It’s easy to say identity is constructed and learned, but it is much more important to break down how that construction works and how those constructions are helpful and harmful in the way people navigate the world around them.

Print Project Proposal: All the Presidents’ Names

For my print project, I propose an analysis of the names used to refer to presidents, and how that may have changed over time. In many cases, American presidents have nick-names or abbreviations that the public uses to refer to them, regardless of if they use it in their personal lives. I hypothesize that presidents go by their full names early on in their careers, but then more colloquial monikers rise in popularity later in their careers, or even after it entirely. I also think that it is likely that a more popular news source would be more inclined to use a nick-name than an academic source. I think this has many implications regarding the public’s perception of presidents before and after they hold office.

Therefore, I plan to use both Google NGram and the Time Magazine Corpus to track the uses of nick-names and abbreviations of presidents’ names over time. Using both of these programs in tandem will help to highlight trends, as well as provide context for how they are being used. For example, if historians use a name that was not used by a president’s contemporaries, these tools would show that. Moreover, I would only look at presidents who have served since 1923, because that is when Time Magazine was first published. 

The names I hope to track are

  1.  Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. FDR 
  2. Dwight vs. Ike Eisenhower
  3. John F. Kennedy vs. JFK
  4. Lyndon B. Johnson vs. LBJ
  5. George vs. George H.W. vs. George W. Bush
  6. Joseph vs. Joe Biden

As an example, here is a very preliminary search of John F. Kennedy and JFK, as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and FDR.

In both cases it is immediately evident that abbreviations for their names rose in popularity after they were no longer in office (which in these specific cases also means after they died). I hope to dig deeper into this phenomenon and its implications.

In addition to collecting this data, I will also read historiographical sources to try and understand the trends that I might find. Overall, I think this project will elucidate trends in public sentiment towards presidents, as well as trends in public understanding of who they are. 

Digital Project Proposal: Cleopatra 2.0

Hey everyone! For my digital project, I would like to take my original print project proposal and turn it into a digital one. I will quickly summarize that proposal here. I essentially want to dive into the social debates surrounding Cleopatra’s representation. In my personal opinion, this seems like a polarizing topic that people are generally invested in. People are constantly going back and forth about her skin color debating whether she was Macedonian, Egyptian, or both. These debates came up again recently when it was announced that Gal Gadot would play Cleopatra in an upcoming film. Here is what Gadot had to say during an interview with BBC Arabic’s Sam Asi, “First of all if you want to be true to the facts then Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.” Throughout this debate over Cleopatra’s race, people make claims like Gadot based on facts. Well, what are the facts? I want this project to explore the different claims that people make regarding Cleopatra’s race and trace how those claims are based on historical facts or lack thereof.

I originally wanted to trace these debates over a variety of media forms and I would still like to do that for this version as well. I would like to collect tweets using the Twitter API and twarc2. This will allow me to collect tweets that reference Cleopatra. I also want to look through blog posts, scholarly and non-scholarly ones, to consider how historians insert themselves into this public debate. Finally, I wanted to consider the nature of this debate on Reddit using the Pushift Reddit Search tool which will allow me to search for posts and comments about Cleopatra. Here comes the experimental twist.

Using either WordPress or Medium, I want to create a blog that is dedicated to exploring this debate. I could have one blog post dedicated to my search on Twitter and another dedicated to my search on Reddit. However, I want this blog to be styled in a similar way to the blog from the film Julie & Julia. If you haven’t seen the film, Julie decides to write a blog about her journey cooking the French recipes from Julia’s cookbooks. I want my blog to not only explore the debate surrounding Cleopatra’s representation but also explore my methodology and overall process linking the claims of the debate with historical evidence. Public documentation of my documentation of the debate on Cleopatra’s representation could create a trail for other people to explore the debate.

It would be amazing if my search led to the ultimate discovery of Cleopatra’s race, but this is highly unlikely. Overall, this debate seems to get a lot of people interested in the field of Classics (Egyptology should be categorized under Classics in my opinion). This blog has the potential to create discourse around public historical debates. I think it is particularly interesting for public historians to understand the nature of public historical debates and I hope that this blog could provide useful commentary on this debate in particular.

Print Project Proposal: Remembering Southern Temple Bombings

Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, I belonged to a tight-knit and thriving Jewish community; I spent many days of my week teaching Hebrew to children or partaking in multiple social justice initiatives at “Shalom Park,” the center of Jewish life in the city. Here, the Reform synagogue, Conservative synagogue, Jewish Day School and Jewish Community Center (JCC) were all right next door to each other, allowing for easy collaboration and fostering of friendships among families. I also had the opportunity to visit other southern synagogues and meet many other Jewish teens in nearby states, like Florida and Georgia, all throughout high school.  

However, it was not until last year that I discovered my synagogue and all the others I visited had something dark and tragic in common: they were all targets of bombings during the Civil Rights Movement.

From The Temple Bombing in Atlanta, Georgia in 1958;

According to historian Clive Webb, white supremacist groups, such as the Confederate Underground and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), believed integration was part of a Zionist-Communist plot that would allow Jews to take over the country. Of course, this antisemitic theory was baseless, but southern white supremacists also began to feel increasingly threatened by rabbis who were outspoken advocates of Black civil rights. Such beliefs and fears resulted in *8 southern Jewish temple bombings from November 1957 to October 1958.

*Note: While Webb states that are 8 temple bombings, he only mentions 7. I need to do further research to try to find the eighth temple targeted.

The Temples Targeted:

  • Temple Beth-El in Charlotte, NC on November 11, 1957
  • Temple Emanuel in Gastonia, NC on February 11, 1958
  • Temple Beth-El in Miami, FL on March 16, 1958
  • Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, AL on April 28, 1958
  • B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR (date currently unknown)
  • Agudath Achim in Alexandria, VA (date currently unknown)
  • Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (The Temple) in Atlanta, GA on October 12, 1958
From the Temple Bombing in Atlanta, Georgia in 1958;

How could I belong to a synagogue and be so involved in the community for years and not know anything of this history? After I learned this information, I began to ask my friends at the other targeted synagogues, and they also had no idea about the bombings.

This dilemma inspired my main research questions:

  1. How do the southern temples discuss the history of the bombings on their personal websites? Do they work to keep the memory of the attack alive? Or do they attempt to bury it and silence it?
  2. How do mainstream websites, like Wikipedia, discuss the history of the bombings and attempt to preserve the memory of the attacks? Do they have any information on the attacks at all?
  3. How do the two websites differ in their information and retelling of the attacks? Is there a clear bias? Significant historical gaps?

To answer the first question, I will examine the personal websites of the synagogues listed above. Many of them have “About Us” or “History” pages online.

Screenshot taken from

For the second question, I will search the incidents on Wikipedia, as well as conduct a basic Google search to see what other websites may appear. I am willing to examine current (last ten years) news articles written on the incidents for this project. Many outlets discuss the incidents on their anniversaries or to connect them to current antisemitic events in the country.

Screenshot from personal Google search

For the last question, I will mainly look at the sources the two websites use. I will also compare their historical facts to the scholarship of Clive Webb, the author of Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, and Leonard Dinnerstein, the author of “Southern Jewry and the Desegregation Crisis, 1954-1970,” to properly assess possible historical gaps. Webb and Dinnerstein are the only two scholars who have thoroughly researched the bombings.

As far as I know, there are no existing projects that are similar to mine — this topic is severely under researched and historians of the field rarely go in-depth on the incidents. On the bright side, there is an archival collection of the Atlanta temple bombing in the Civil Rights Digital Library, but it only contains a singular news clip.

With this project, I hope to bring more awareness to these incidents. I would also like to inspire others (and myself) to further research southern temple bombings, possibly correct wrong information of these attacks online, or even provide the crucial historical information to the websites, in order to expand public knowledge of this time period and the southern Jewish communities.

-Rachael Davis