Past, Plot, & Podcasts

Despite the craziness of the ongoing pandemic, I was recently able to give a talk about three things near and dear to my academic heart: history, stories, and podcasts. Alongside the great minds of Jim Ambuske, Deepthi Murali, and Abby Mullen, I thought about both narrative and podcasting as forms of history and whether, together, they constitute a kind of scholarship on par with the profession’s standards. Overall, we were floored by both the large (distanced) crowd that attended the panel at AHA2022 and the engaging discussion we were able to have afterwards.

During my talk, I dwelt on two, interrelated questions this post quickly surveys:

  • Why narrative?
  • Why podcasts?

To answer the first question about narratives I pulled from the works of Charles Taylor, James K.A. Smith, and Sander Griffioen. They, along with others, have long pointed to the importance of storytelling to both history and human experience. We are told, at some level, both history and life are inherently storied, and these stories work on a deeper, more emotional (“affective,” in fancy terms) level than just on our minds. Deploying the story, then, is crucial in how we think about and go about the work of history.

One of the key benefits of doing history narratively is the power of immersion– of placing the audience as literally as possible in the world of the story. In other words, there are historical truths that must be entered into and experienced rather than just explained. As a panel, we spent a good chunk of time discussing this concept and the ways in which we seek to deploy it in the stories we tell in our podcasts.

So why podcasts? A podcast, specifically a narrative podcast, has great power to tell historical stories. If narrative is about immersion, then podcasts can be a perfect form for narratives. Done well, the podcast can work off of a combination of immersion and a myth of intimacy, or a perceived, close connection to that all important character, the storyteller themselves: in this case, the host. Narrative podcasts, NPR has said, “are deep dives, even if short. The audience has to feel as if another world, fictional or factual, was opened up to them” (Weldon, NPR’S Podcast Start Up Guide, 31). Again note the language of immersion – in which the listener enters into the story itself. These podcasts prove so successful in conveying stories as they connect knowledge and entertainment in a format that is hopefully not only more accessible to more people (i.e.. Spotify is free, books are less free) but in a more mobile format. These stories can be taken anywhere and entered into anytime.

To think about how the historical profession is already close to the world of narrative podcasting I brought in Simon Newman’s recent-ish digital article with the Omohundro Institute, “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

Newman used a host of new digital methods to tell a convincing history. What’s more, what made the story so convincing, many reviewers agreed, was how immersive it was. One of the most significant things for Newman was the inclusion of sound to scholarship. Newman wove throughout his story the sounds of the bustling urban centers and the music that was a central part of African and Jamaican festivals and funerals. He also partnered with many from the world of linguistics to better capture the accents of his characters, getting at how the people themselves sounded.

Newman knew that these new forms of history could never be exact and, alone, did not immediately transform our vision of history. However, when paired with other forms of scholarship, they did enhance our ability to imagine more hidden aspects of the past. In a way, they give us new eyes to see, ears to hear, and effect the ways we imagine the past – which is no small historical undertaking.

As a panel we agreed that the historian’s job in ‘reconstructing’ the past includes faithfully reconstructing how the past sounded – or, as it is called by many in the audio world, the past’s “soundscape.” Deepthi gave an incredible presentation on the scholarly work that goes into creating a soundscape that, again, will be available sometime in the near-ish future.

Here is an example of a “soundscape” from Consolation Prize that covered the diplomatic world that exploded alongside the eruption of Mt. Pelée. The sound of the eruption in the background helps color the consul’s report in a dramatic way. The sounds you here, from the eruption to the foghorn of the ship, were meticulously researched by Abby.

As someone who is especially interested in religion, I couldn’t help but think of David Hall’s account of the Bostonian Samuel Sewall, whose lived, religious experience was so determined by the sounds of his 17th century world – his “soundscape.” What could we learn about Sewall if his life were in a podcast we listened to instead of an article we read? I’m increasingly excited about the benefits sound and podcasting could bring to the world of religious studies.

The group of historians who joined us for this panel were eager to discuss all of these ideas, and the Q & A session was lively and productive. I thought it was really interesting how many of the questions from the audience had to do with podcasts in educational settings, especially classrooms, and the role of stories and imagination in the use of soundscapes. One historian wanted to know how podcasts “speak to each other” and how to include that conversation in classroom assignments. Several talked about how they now have their students produce their own podcast as their semester project rather than writing a term paper to hopefully provide a more entertaining way to engage the work of history.

On the narrative and imagination side of things, many still wondered what to think about soundscapes as historical productions that can never be 100% accurate. We talked at length about how to include accountability in podcasting to keep it from getting too carried away with its own stories or ensuring that multiple perspectives are included when talking about complex subjects. These are excellent questions and ones we are still mulling over.

Story, context, sound – all of these were central for Simon Newman in doing good history. They also happen to be some of the central characteristics and biggest advantages narrative podcasts have to offer. What Newman imagined as a digital article can be realized in a podcast, further pushing us into new forms of history. As we continue to ponder what makes historical “scholarship, we might ask ourselves what’s so different between the digital article and the narrative podcast? Do we place so much emphasis on the “visual” of the article that we neglect the power of imagination that is used in audio-only history? And why should one count as “scholarship” and not the other?

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