PART ONE OF THREE:
STUFF YOU MISSED IN HISTORY CLASS
I crawled out from under my rock and started listening to podcasts late in the game. When I decided to give podcasts a try a little over a year ago, Stuff You Missed in History Class was the first one I downloaded.
Hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey are truly prolific. They come out with two episodes every week, each of which never fails to reflect a tremendous amount of research. The geographic and temporal range their episodes offer is both remarkable and refreshing. Graduate school is about mastering an incredibly specific topic, and every once in a while it’s nice to climb out of the bubble and learn about a place and time that I’m not required to lecture on. Biography driven episodes are where SYMIHC truly shines, and I especially enjoy listening to the podcast around Halloween, when they delve into spookier fare… historical haunted houses and the like.
I think—as is the case with most of the blogs coming out of HowStuffWorks.com—most listeners only play episodes of SYMIHC on topics they suspect they’ll enjoy. I think that’s a wrongheaded approach, and would instead encourage you to weather episodes on subjects you aren’t immediately inclined to. The podcast has surprised me more than once.
Some reviewers have complained about the podcaster’s voices, which—in addition to being rude—doesn’t really resonate with me. I’m from the South (as are the hosts), so I actually find their voices quite soothing, and sometimes put on old episodes when I’m having trouble sleeping. The only downside re: performance is a result of the sheer volume of information the hosts communicate within a single podcast. They have to read their notes, and with any presentation that’s read aloud, that can get dull from time to time. It’s not a big problem for me, but I’m an historian, so I have a really high threshold for the “reading aloud” voice. I’ve also listened to these two ladies talk for long enough that I kind of feel like I know them. Which isn’t creepy at all.
At the level of content, I have mixed feelings about SYMIHC. The podcast has run for many years, and its quality has varied as a result. Some of the previous hosts had me throwing my iPhone against the wall, but Holly and Tracy seem hip to the cultural turn, and don’t devote a ton of time to worshipping America’s old dead white men. All I’m saying is listen to back episodes at your own risk.
Even with competent and engaging hosts like Holly and Tracy, professional historians might be turned off by exactly same elements that make the podcast appealing to others. It is true that exceptionally few of the topics the podcast covers make it into the average history class curriculum, but I don’t think that the actual approach to history is so radically different from what you’d see in high school: the hosts communicate facts and anecdotes, but don’t do a tremendous amount in the way of analysis. The topics are rarely of a subversive nature, and only rarely does historiography enter the discussion. But that’s okay; SYMIHC isn’t a podcast targeted towards professional historians; in fact, there are more than a couple of precocious young children listening. So yes, listeners sacrifice analysis for thick description but—especially given the medium—I think that’s a feature, not a bug.
In short, I highly recommend tuning in to SYMIHC; as long as you understand exactly what it is Holly and Tracy are selling, you’ll be a happy buyer. (Not that you have to pay for the podcast. You can download it for free. You know what I mean).
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.