The SMDS Listening List: History Podcasts


The Memory Palace

Most episodes of The Memory Palace are ten minutes or less, but packed within that tiny space is poignant prose that often leaves me shaking my head in admiration.

Nate DiMeo, the show’s host and writer, is phenomenal. His work is all the reminder one needs that history can be not just fun, not just accessible, but freakin’ lyrical. Between his NPR voice (he’s done appearances on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace) and his gift for writing, DiMeo is storytelling incarnate.

Nate DiMeo looks literally nothing like the way  imagined him. Great putting a face to the voice!

Nate DiMeo looks literally nothing like the way imagined him. Great putting a face to the voice!

The vast majority of episodes are based in the US at the turn of the 20th century. DiMeo is especially captivated by scientific innovation, and—just like a good professor—he so skillfully communicates his passion that listeners can’t help but share in his awe. Seriously, he did a podcast on the invention of the elevator (a topic that, on its face, I consider exceedingly boring) and did it in such a way that I found it riveting.

If you have children and are interested in democratizing history, I strongly suggest playing an episode of The Memory Palace at bedtime. Nate DiMeo is the kind of writer who can get kids hooked on history.

The biggest problem with The Memory Palace (which, by the way, is part of the Maximum Fun family of podcasts).[1]

is that episodes are incredibly addictive, incredibly short, and released infrequently at best. DiMeo does all his own research and writng, and that takes time. I binge listened to the show during the course of a day devoted to doing all manner of housework, and The Memory Palace managed to make even that, well, memorable. I wish I’d had the discipline to listen slowly, and will probably go back and re-listen to every episode soon.

It’s time to raise the profile of this podcast. Give it a listen, and tell your friends. Art this good demands an audience.

[1] The Memory Palace has since left Maximum Fun. It is currently hosted by Radiotopia, PRX’s podcasting network.

“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.

When One Door Closes, Make Lemonade

My summer session course got cancelled a few days ago due to low enrollment. It was a pretty big disappointment to me, and—I imagine—to my department, which had anticipated that the class was going to be a big draw.

They had good anecdotal evidence to support that assumption. I taught the same course (“Sex in U.S. History”) last year as an upper division seminar, and it was not only really successful, it achieved full enrollment. My department chair and I decided that, given all the positive reviews of last year’s class, we’d capitalize on student interest, and offer the same class again, this time as a 15D (the GenEd-iest of general education courses). At the time it seemed like a slam dunk, but lo, the same course that was packed to the gills last year couldn’t attract more than 10 students this year.

“Sex in U.S. History” ended up being a victim of a perfect storm of sorts, one for which absolutely nobody is responsible. The success of the class was contingent on multiple factors above and beyond student interest, and it looks like we managed to lose every single mini-gamble we took in offering the course.

Am I disappointed? Of course. I genuinely love teaching, and I especially love teaching this subject. Several former students of mine had signed up to take the class, and I’d very much looked forward to showing them what I do when I’m not teaching composition. Being a course instructor is a veritable butt ton of work, but it’s also one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. So yes, losing my class was quite deflating.

Then there’s the money. I was kind of counting on that money. Woops.

Luckily, my department is unendingly supportive of me. They got me a position as a grader which, while not nearly as lucrative as an instructor position, means I won’t be eating cat food all summer. While it’s not the role I envisioned for myself, it’s going to give me the chance to work with students studying 19th century US history, something that my two year appointment in the First-Year Integrated Program meant I’ve not yet had the opportunity to do. I’m also going to be working with one of my dearest friends in the History Department, who—on account of being awesome—has already arranged for me to give a guest lecture in her class. The topic, death in the Civil War, is one I’ve wanted to lecture on for ages, so this is a fantastic opportunity.

The disappointment of having my class cancelled has been remediated somewhat by the fact that I’m not going home empty handed. It’s been remediated still further by my ability—when the occasion calls for it—to be rabidly optimistic.

For the first time in two years, I’m going to have a break from designing lesson plans, lecturing, and all the other time and energy commitments that come with teaching. I’d cut out my own heart if I thought it would help my students, so I tend (at times to my detriment) to think of teaching less as a job, and more as a way of life. I compare primary sources while trying to fall asleep, I read new books looking for fresh material… I get pretty absorbed in making sure I’m giving my students the best intellectual experience I possibly can. Sitting sidecar will free up my schedule to do research I would have certainly put off until the fall had I been teaching. At this stage in my career, that’s a really good thing.

This experience has taught me a lot about the dangers of chicken counting in academia (I can only imagine how crushing this same scenario would be as an adjunct). It’s also reminded me that, in this profession, you may run out of time, money, and patience, but you’ll never run out of worthwhile things to do. I’m exchanging the rewards of teaching for the rewards of archival research. That’s an incredible trade. There aren’t very many jobs out there where the glass is so consistently half full, and I feel lucky every day that I’m doing work that matters on so many different levels.

And there you have it… the borderline alchemical transformation of bad news into gratitude. When it comes to polishing turds, I’m a rock star.

But seriously, something’s wrong on a campus where a class about S.E.X. doesn’t fill. I mean… I used “twerking” in the course description! Get it together, anteaters.


“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.