Publication Date

April 21, 2022

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting, AHA Online, Perspectives Daily


  • United States


Digital Methods, Public History

Academic historians are trained in a variety of research and writing skills, but one skill that often remains underdeveloped is the ability to communicate with a broader public. Several sessions at the 2022 AHA annual meeting, both in New Orleans and online, discussed strategies for engaging students and the public through digital spaces. In these sessions, some panelists discussed how video games can enrich student engagement and understanding of the past, while others grappled with the role of historical podcasting both within and outside the academy. Together, they demonstrated that both video games and podcasts offer tools that draw new students to history and help existing ones engage more critically not only with depictions of the past, but also with what makes history “history.”

A gray podcasting microphone.

Presenters at AHA22 discussed how podcasting provides opportunities for historians and their scholarship.Will Francis/Unsplash

In “Playing the Past: Digital Games in the History Classroom,” John James Harney (Centre Coll.), Thomas Lecaque (Grand View Univ.), and Esther Wright (Cardiff Univ.) considered how to integrate historical games into an undergraduate course—even how to design an entire course around them. All cited increased student engagement with the course material as a major benefit. The games that these historians use can be grouped into two broad categories. Some are major titles created by large studios, such as Call of Duty, Sid Meier’s Civilization, or the Total War series, which offer lessons in historical memory. They ask students to interrogate the game as a text, and the designers’ choices allow for rich discussions of ideologies hiding in plain sight. For example, Lecaque teaches with the fantasy game Skyrim. Despite the fictional setting, the game uses pseudo-medieval “Nordic” imagery that has been appropriated by real-world white nationalists, allowing Lecaque’s students to discuss memory and historical representation. In addition to major titles, the panelists also teach intricate and painstakingly researched indie games that provide realistic content when supplemented with classroom discussion and supporting readings. Games in this category are more academically rigorous and are usually designed explicitly for educational purposes, such as the 1971 classic The Oregon Trail.

Panelists found including video games in the classroom has proved fruitful, and that these classes had high enrollment. Harney has also incorporated game design into his course, allowing him to carve out a unique cross-disciplinary niche between history and computer science. There remains one major challenge, however: cost. Civilization VI, for example, currently retails for $59.99. The panelists recommended that game costs should not exceed typical book costs for a course. To make games more affordable for students, instructors should see if developers are willing to give free copies of games for educational purposes. Panelists also recommended free mobile games that can be assigned for little to no additional cost. Still, despite the financial concern, the panelists showed that video games can serve as a rich primary source to explore issues of memory or a supporting secondary source and form a strong hook to keep students engaged in the class material.

John Hames Harney has incorporated game design, allowing him to carve out a unique cross-disciplinary niche between history and computer science.

While video games can be used to draw students into history courses, narrative podcasts allow historians to reach a broad and interested public. In “Doing History Online: Podcasts, Twitter, and the Digital Archive,” panelists dug into the questions about what constitutes scholarship, the ways to reach different audiences, and the duty of the historian to the public.

The proliferation of podcasting has opened a new medium through which to communicate history. Mike Duncan, host of Revolutions and The History of Rome podcasts, argued for the importance of a partnership between the academic historians who do original research and those who synthesize history for the public. He lamented the fact that the incentive structures of the academy mean that developing the skill of communicating with the public will always be secondary to publishing written scholarship. In Duncan’s experience, the public can understand complex historical topics; he never dumbs down the substance and only tries to make the language more accessible. Duncan’s podcasts tell sweeping history, with his season on the French Revolution covering 55 episodes. For Duncan, podcasting is a way to recast the historian in the classic role of storyteller.

On the other hand, Alina Scott (Univ. of Texas at Austin), a graduate student and host of 15 Minute History, excels through brevity. The podcast, sponsored by UT Austin, seeks to cover single historical issues concisely at the undergraduate and high school level. Scott’s greatest desire is connecting students to historical topics and concepts they otherwise wouldn’t have encountered. Because of the breadth of topics and their short length, 15 Minute History offers students a jumping-off point for further inquiry.

15 Minute History excels through brevity.

Another session on podcasts, “Narrative Podcasting as Scholarship,” encouraged attendees to consider incorporating podcasts into definitions of historical scholarship. George Mason University’s Abigail Mullen, Deepthi Murali, and Kristofer Stinson, producers of Consolation Prize, a podcast about American diplomatic history, discussed how heavily produced and researched “soundscapes” can provide sonic evidence that cannot exist in traditional forms of scholarship. They take inspiration from other digital history projects in arguing that the article and monograph are not the only forms research can be presented. James Ambuske (Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington) discussed Intertwined, an eight-part podcast on slavery at George Washington’s plantation Mount Vernon. Each episode focuses on an individual enslaved person and the project includes interviews with the enslaved community’s descendants. Both podcasts seek to be highly rigorous while remaining accessible to the public.

Some audience members remained skeptical that podcasting could constitute scholarship. Such hesitance seemed to stem primarily from a lack of professional infrastructure to credential the work. No matter how thoroughly researched these projects may be, the academic peer-review system does not have the tools or structure to judge them. Yet perhaps the American Historical Review’s commitment to review material such as museum exhibits, podcasts, video games, and other projects will help change opinions about their scholarly importance.

With these changes in digital tools historians remain nimble in the ways that they can be applied both inside and outside the classroom. While they provide opportunity, they also provoke questions. What is the role of the historian? And what should their relationship be to the public? Through the medium of technology, these sessions engaged with deeper themes relating to the nature of the discipline and the academy itself.

Justin Hawkins is a PhD student at Indiana University Bloomington and an editorial assistant at the American Historical Review. He tweets @thebluehawk1.

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