I am happy to have Matt Lakemacher writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. Matt is one of the most engaged middle school teachers I know. He teaches at Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, Illinois and is a veteran of numerous summer history seminars and institutes. Here is his first dispatch:
Can podcasting help to stem the tide of declining enrollment in history departments? For the panelists and audience members in an opening American Historical Association roundtable today on “History Podcasting as Graduate Students,” the answer was a resounding, if qualified, yes. Producers and hosts from two historical podcasts, Sexing History and The Way of Improvement Leads Home, gave brief remarks on their experiences with history podcasting and then opened it up for audience members to share the ways that they’ve used podcasts in the classroom and with students. In the end, it became clear that while podcasting (as well as blogging) might not be the silver bullet that saves history education, it can be another tool in the history teacher’s arsenal to make the subject relevant, keep students’ interest, and in jargon that all K-12 educators know their administrators want to hear: promote 21st century skills.
Two dual themes emerged from the panel: podcasting is good for history and history is good for podcasting. Each panelist related in one way or another how working on a podcast actually improved their work as grad students and as historians. According to Saniya Lee Ghanoui, podcasting with Sexing History taught her the importance of story-telling and has greatly improved her dissertation writing. In a similar vein, Devin McGeehan Muchmore shared how blogging for Notches and working on Sexing History got him to think about ways of narrating the past outside of the traditional historical monograph or journal article. And Drew Dyrli Hermeling credited his work on The Way of Improvement Leads Home with getting a job at the Digital Harrisburg Project. As a whole, the panel embraced the role that podcasting can play in public history – bringing the past to those outside of the academy (although it was conceded that podcasting is still very much a niche medium and can be somewhat of an echo chamber). Ghanoui offered some advice to her fellow grad students: “It does take away time from your dissertation . . . but it’s a welcome distraction.” She added, “I love how collaborative it is . . . it is worth it.”
Hermeling set the table for the audience discussion that followed and the pivot to history being good for podcasting, by sharing how he had students in his J-Term class on indigenous culture at Messiah College create a podcast as one option for a project assignment. He, as well as the audience, made clear that audio quality and production values should not be heavily weighted on any rubric used for grading such an assignment. But Hermeling was surprised by the quality of the research and sources that students used in their podcast. “It’s a good way of tricking them into using a lot of citations.” One audience member admitted that compared to other assignments, grading student podcasts was a pleasure. Another said that Wisconsin Public Radio was looking to possibly use some of his students’ short pieces on the air. And everyone who shared during the session had positive experiences doing a podcasting assignment in class, thought the students were engaged, and plan on doing them again.
So, can podcasting turn around sagging interest in history as a K-12 subject and as a major? Perhaps the jury is still out. But if it provides another way of getting students to apply historical thinking skills to a (relatively) new technology and opens another venue for bringing historical literacy to the public at large, then it’s an effort well worth pursuing. As the roundtable’s chair and host of Sexing History Lauren Gutterman stated, “graduate students are at the forefront of history podcasting,” and for that this history teacher and fellow grad student is grateful. Of course, as Hermeling put it in one final word of advice for potential history podcasters, “At the risk of being flippant, I’d go the Sexing History route.”