The Pros and Cons of the Podcast…

Podcasts…they are a very different way of looking at history in the digital age, but it is a major way to explore and examine what is going on in the world of history in under 60 minutes. With that said, what ways are podcasts pushing the limits and succeeding in ways that history websites are not? Websites have to deal with issues of gaining an audience, keeping an audience, and growing interest in a particular subject while also educating. We have seen websites that are great sources to their target audience, Phillaplace, Valley of the Shadow, even Cohen and Rosenzweig’s book website is a great example of these types of websites. They bring something new and different to their field of study and the ways that people engage the material. Yet they involved reading, or physically being on the website to engage the material that is presented. The strength of a podcast is that it does not take over 45 minutes. One can listen to it and not do anything else, or they can go about their day, working, cleaning house, or completing other projects and papers for various classes. The listener is still engaged with the material, just not as completely as other digital Medias demand. This is both a positive and a negative of the podcast; it is also a negative in that while working on other things while listening, one is not listening as closely as they could to fully retain the material that is being projected over the sound waves. A podcast also, does not allow for interaction, as other medias have shown to do, sites that allow you to add to them like the NY Historic Places/Walking Tour site or Phillaplace. With these kinds of sites, or even ones that allow the visitor to ask a question or play a game/take a quiz, force the individual to not only engage the material mentally, but on a physical level as well. A podcast does not allow the listener to do anything but listen. Yet a positive of the podcast is that target listeners will return, constantly, to a website that is producing a podcast. Podcasts can be updated monthly, like the Journal of American History, weekly, or even daily. Those sites will have visitors returning, where other sites may only have one-time visitors to a website, with little to no return.

As to the material that these sites are communicating to their viewers and listeners, the same knowledge is being spread around he webosphere. A website can display the same knowledge as a scholar calling into a Journal’s monthly podcast to discuss his work that is being published for that month (Journal of American History). It comes down to the user, viewer, and listener to fully engage the material to the best of their ability to understand and retain the information presented to them, they have the tools, they just have to use them. Yet one might be more willing to listen to a history podcast while at work, instead of taking those 45 minutes to examine all the interactive possibilities of website. If found listening to a podcast by his or her “higher-ups” would likely be more respectable than paroling a website and not even attempting to accomplish any other work, but this is just one example. Another positive for the podcast is the interaction of having more than one historian reporting on their research, like the BBC podcast on Judas Maccabeus. The interaction between three historians who clearly do not always agree on their topic, displays to the listener that historians are able to study the same thing and take away a completely different view on the same sources that everyone is using, in this case it was using the book of Maccabeus as a source. Though with this came issue, the historians could not go into a full debate on the topic because of the time restraint, they had to fit in the radio broadcast in a certain about of time (43 minutes) and the moderator forced the scholars to stay on topic with the questions that he had created to drive the discussion. While others just allow a single scholar to go on about their work, as the Journal of American History does and hearing that for an extended period of time causes the listener to zone out or fast forward to more interesting content. The boring stuff is skipped over though, when engaging other forms of digital media.

As far as podcasts go, I am a fan. I enjoyed being able to listen to these while also working on my website for this class. I felt like I was accomplishing a lot in a minimal amount of time. I listen to other podcasts while at work, it may be superficial, but it feels more scholarly to listen to a podcast than something on Pandora. But in the end I am still going to listen to more music than podcasts, while at work. Podcasts have their pros and cons, they do things differently than a website, but in the end, it is just another way to engage history on a digital landscape.

In Our Time, Podcasts Provide the BackStory

From BackStory, I listened to “American Spirit: A History of the Supernatural.” This “Halloween special” podcast explored Americans’ relationship with ghosts, spirits, and witches. Each podcast has its own page that offers a short summary of the guiding questions for the podcast, as well as further readings and web exclusives. The web exclusives for the “American Spirit” podcast includes an extended version of Ed Ayres’ interview with a spirit medium and a recording of a listener phone call. BackStory also features a variety of ways to share each podcast through social media. Beyond sharing podcasts, users are invited to comment and start their own conversations about the topic on the website.

The second podcast I listened to was “The Aztecs” from BBC’s In Our Time. Like the BackStory podcast, In Our Time offers a short summary of the guiding questions for each podcast. The more recent podcasts offer related links and further readings. “The Aztecs” was produced in 2003, and does not offer this supplementary content. In Our Time did not offer ways for listeners to interact or share podcasts through social media.

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Evolution, Mughals, Mutinies, and awesome ways to supplement history courses

I really enjoyed listening to the podcasts this week. I actually listened to three because I liked them so much and I have subscribed to the BBC podcasts in my Google reader so I’ll remember to go back to it in the future.

The first podcast I listened to was called “In the Beginning: Evolution and Creation in America” on the Backstory site. The podcast featured three history guys, one each from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. They started out by discussing the founding fathers’ views on religion, focusing particularly on Thomas Jefferson, his deism, and his interest in science. Of particular interest was the discussion of Jefferson’s fossilized bones, the lack of understanding of species extinction in the eighteenth century, and the connection between Jefferson’s desire to find these mysterious animals and the Lewis and Clark expeditions. They then moved on to discussing Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and its unremarkable reception in the United States, which was followed by a more critical view as more and more children started attending public school, thus being exposed to the theory of evolution, and as people tried to understand the devastation people could inflict on others through wars such as WWI and WWII. They chronicle the Scopes Trial, including audio segments from the film Inherit the Wind throughout the show and interview a high school biology teacher from Dayton, Tennessee who disagrees with evolution. They next discuss the history of evangelism and creation science in the United States, noting that in its beginnings, creation science attempted to accommodate scientific views of nature that largely excluded religion, but by the 1980s, God was brought into the conversation. The program was very interesting in that it brought it featured the three historians, one of whom was Ed Ayers, who interviewed different people (experts and laypeople) about the subject, and featured audio clips from different time periods to highlight changing viewpoints. The show also featured a segment where callers could speak with the historians about their own thoughts/questions about the topic which generated interesting discussions not featured in the main body of the show. While I enjoyed the show, I also appreciated the extra features built into the site, such as an area for users to discuss the show with each other on the page and the further reading section that featured materials listeners could access about the topics highlighted in the show. For instance, as I was listening to the historians talk about Jefferson’s fossils, I wanted to know more. I found links to this information in the further reading section. Another interesting aspect of the site is the “In the Works” section where ideas for future shows are posted and users of the site can weigh in with ideas and questions they would like covered. The two callers featured on the above mentioned program were contacted because of their participation in this section of the site. Each story also features a series of tags user can access to find more stories of their interest.

On the BBC site, I listened to two podcasts: one about the Mughal Empre and one about the Indian Mutiny. I enjoyed them (obviously because I listened to two), but noticed the tone to be quite different from the Backstory site. While the Backstory site was more of a show featuring different types of discussion, engagement with audience, and audio clips of different media, the BBC podcasts featured historians talking to each other about the topic. No other media was featured. There is no engagement with the audience. People cannot comment or discuss the podcast. It is historians talking and users are meant to download the podcast and listen. I may sound critical, and I am a bit, because I approve of user engagement, but I still felt like the podcasts worked well for their purpose, which is to educate interest listeners by allowing them to listen to a conversation between experts.

When I think about these sites in the context of what we’ve been discussing throughout the quarter, I think the two sites do a good job of using digital media to accomplish their goals. The Backstory site clearly intends to engage the public, provide open access to different users from different backgrounds, utilize experts and the public in collecting and analyzing history, and connect information in a variety of ways by linking out to other sites, using tags, and encouraging discussion. I believe the BBC site is very different and not meant to engage the public in the same way, but I still think it also meets some of the goals of digital history – it allows the public to access information that they may not otherwise have by placing conversations between experts on the web for free. And I might add, there are a lot of these conversations. I think that the site tends to function as an open access archive to a wealth of information about history, culture, literature, science, and more.

The first thing I thought when listening to the podcasts was, “Awesome. I want to keep listening to these.” The second thing I thought was that these could be very useful in teaching. I have noticed that in the world history course I TA for, it is very difficult to cover all of the topics during lecture and I’m sure many of the students are a little bored from their text. I’m not saying that the text or the lecture should be replaced, but I do think that assigning a couple of podcasts a week, like the BBC podcasts, would be a fun, easy, free, and interesting way to supplement the traditional style.