So many ways to engage with history

Podcasts are changing the game on how we engage with history. Lately, there seems to be a whole range of different podcasts with different objectives to uncover historical “truths.” They are presented in a way that aims to expose what we didn’t know about our past and finding new ways to understand who we are, apart from the “traditional” approach of looking at the leaders. (Admittedly this seems to kind of miss the fact that historians have been uncovering all this interesting stuff and at least a good portion of we historians have been trying to find the voices of marginalized people, women, children, everyday folk, etc., for at least the last few decades, but I digress.)

Last year I listened to White Lies, that aimed to uncover the “truth” behind the murder of Rev. James Reeb following Turnaround Tuesday in Selma, 1965. This was a fascinating listen of journalists turned-amateur-historical-slueths investigate not just the murder but the ongoing sensitivities of race and the civil rights movement. (A good reminder that at its peak, only 60% of Americans supported the civil rights movement.) And it was a good marriage of true crime and history. It was especially fun to listen to while teaching US 1960s and 1970s history.

I also listened to the first two season’s of Slate’s Slow Burn. The first looked at Watergate and the second season looked at the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I listened to the first while teaching US 1960s-1970s and the second while teaching 1980-present day. I found the podcast’s take on Monica Lewinsky to especially interesting, especially in the era of #metoo. (It’s fourth season will be looking at David Duke, of the KKK. In a period of time where white supremacy seems to be on the rise, this seems especially pertinent. Read more here.)

I’ve also been listening to Throughline. I really enjoy this one as it explores a different topic in US history each episode. It’s most recent episode (Becoming America, Feb. 13) looked at American imperialism, the US war in the Philippines, and our adoption of America over the wordy United States of America. I also really enjoyed Conspiracy Theories from November 2019. The episode looks at different theories in US history but I particularly found the idea of even Abraham Lincoln’s claims about the nation’s founding in the Gettysburg Address had its own tinge of conspiracy as it exaggerates the aims of the Founding Father.

That is probably my favorite aspect of history: debating what happened and why. The interpretation of what we have. I often tell my students that history is a puzzle that is missing pieces and our job is to do the best we can to fill in those pieces with the information we already have.

All of this leads to me the podcast that a student just brought to my attention. Dolly Parton’s America describes itself this way: “In this intensely divided moment, one of the few things everyone still seems to agree on is Dolly Parton—but why? That simple question leads to a deeply personal, historical, and musical rethinking of one of America’s great icons.” But the episode my student (enrolled in my Civil War class) brought to my attention is Dixie’s Disappearance about a former show, “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” at a dinner theater that presents the Civil War as a friendly competition between neighbors. I recommend taking a listen.

All this got me thinking about how we think about and engage with history. How something that many high schoolers will happily tell is “boring” can create so much debate and anger, even in the most innocent of trappings like Dolly Parton’s Stampede. Pop culture plays with history, twists and manipulates it, to advance a story line or sell books or movies. But we do it all the time too, it helps us create and define who we are and how we understand ourselves.

I am thinking more about how pop culture does this more and how I can engage with it in the classroom. How can we connect the bigger picture of the week’s lecture or course’s theme with how we, sometimes unknowingly, debate with history all the time. How can we take those manipulations of history and force them into a conversation with primary sources? How would you want to see an instructor do this? How might it challenge your learning?


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