Making History Accessible

I’ve enjoyed listening to the History Chicks podcasts. The opening tag to each show is “Where any resemblance to a boring old history lesson is purely incidental”. The podcasts focus on historical women ranging from Joan of Arc to Jane Austin, and they even have podcasts on fictional women in relation to their context in history and society. The History Chicks focus on how the women fit in the political and social timeline of history and how their legacies may impact modern society. The tone of the show is conversational with an appropriate dose of humor. They don’t claim to be history experts – they describe their show as “training wheels of history”, and because they are both mothers of young children, they offer shows that are accessible to children as well.

I appreciate that their podcasts vary in lengths from mini podcasts of 20 minutes or less to more in depth podcasts lasting an hour or more. This flexibility allows me, and other listeners, the opportunity to select a podcast that fits our schedule. For the more visual learner, the companion historychicks.com website provides descriptions of podcasts and photos or illustrations.

From a public history perspective the History Chicks do a good job of making history accessible.

As I write and edit my script, like the History Chicks, I don’t want my podcast to end up being a boring history lesson, I want the information to be accessible. I am struggling with the balance between human interest and hard numbers. As a person who prefers qualitative research to quantitative research – I’m usually more concerned with the story than the data that drives the story.

Some of the challenges I’m finding in writing with production in mind, is determining the appropriate length for each segment, as well ass where  I should insert a short musical interlude to allow for a few seconds of reflection before making a shift in the story. Also, judging the amount of musical interlude, and the mood of the musical interlude that best fits the moment in the podcast is a challenge.

Finally, it is difficult to write the script, when I haven’t yet interviewed my personal informant. Between our schedules, it has been difficult for us to pin down a time to meet.  I’m concerned that when I do interview Mary Sue Terry, once I find where her story leads, I may have to make significant edits and/or conduct further research.

Missing Richard Simmons and Scripts

I’ve been listening to “Missing Richard Simmons” and Samara Freemark is right. This is one of the best pieces of media I’ve ever heard/read/seen. It’s funny and haunting. And I think that Dan Taberski was really brave to end it the way he did. He and his team set out to answer “what happened to Richard? Where did he go?” He didn’t find answers to these questions in his six episode arc and he just admitted it. I think “Missing Richard Simmons” is a good example of how we can’t always predict where our projects are going to lead us and we have to be open to ambiguous conclusions.

When I first started listening I thought it would venture towards the creepy and be an invasion of Simmons privacy. I know a lot of critiques describe the podcast as “problematic” and “invasive” but I don’t think it was. The project comes from a genuine place of concern and Taberski constantly reminds listeners of this. He repeatedly asks Simmons to get a message to him somehow to tell him to stop if he ever goes too far. Whatever others may say, Taberski was a friend of Simmons. And people have a right to know why their friends stopped talking to them. So in my book, if Simmons is happy and healthy then he is not as good of a person as we were led to believe. Anyone with a modicum of fame knows that if you act like you’re friends with your fans, then they will think you’re friends. If Simmons wanted to fall off the face of the Earth quietly, then he should not have been created the persona and the relationships that he did.

On to script writing, I don’t believe my script will ever be final. As I read it out to get the timing, I was constantly revising what I had already written. I know from previous projects I’ve done that I will get sudden ideas as I record and edit and I’m fine with that. This goes back to the idea mentioned earlier that we can never know what our final project will look like until it is final. Even then I’m sure there will be things that I want to go back and change, but I can’t because it’s a minute past the due date. So for me, the writing and production processes are pretty closely intertwined. While I write, I get ideas for what the project should sound like and as I produce, I’ll play around with the wording order to get my meaning clearest.

The most difficult part of writing my script draft was that I hadn’t conducted my interviews yet. I have questions to ask and a direction I want to go, but honestly my interviewees could say anything and I’ll have to figure out a way to make it work. But I’m not too worried about this as I always expect projects like this to evolve hour by hour.

Tricky Scripts

I’ve just been listening to This American Life recently. I usually only listen to podcasts when I run, and I took all of last week off from exercising since I had so much work to do for class, my thesis, Bertoti, and GA things. Definitely a huge wake-up call from spring break mode. I really want to start listening to Missing Richard Simmons–it comes highly recommended (thanks Emily and Heather).

I spent 12 hours on Thursday in Major Williams. Eight and a half of those hours were spent on my interview with Dr. Wallenstein and finishing my script. I learned that incorporating outside audio into a written script is extremely strange and hard to navigate. I also learned that in no way, shape, or form do I want to work for any kind of broadcasting network. As much as I love listening to podcasts, working on the other side of them is exhausting and simply not my thing.

I’m not sure if this is how it should be, but I think of the script as more of a guide for my podcast than something I should be reading word for word. I struggle to write in a conversational tone when my writing involves research, so I think when I’m recording I’ll go into presentation mode and refer to the script to keep me on track and make sure I cover everything. So I guess I’m saying the relationship between my writing process and the production process is more of a planning session for a presentation.

The biggest challenge of writing the script was the learning curve. I’ve never done anything like this before so I was very uncomfortable. I stuck to the writing that I know how to do, which is more informative and reliant on my research than descriptive, conversational, or “in the moment.” I constantly doubted what I wrote, thinking that I was talking too much or spending too much time describing the Lovings’ case and not the politics around it. I struggled with transitions to the audio clips I’m using–I wasn’t sure how to introduce them or frame them.

I also struggled with the word and page limit because they definitely didn’t add up. I got to 2,000 words at page 6. I ended up going about 300 words over and ended the script at page 7, and still needed about 3 more minutes to reach 20 total. But I knew we were supposed to keep the word count low and I had reached a good stopping point anyway. And since this was a draft, I figured there would be places that I could expand on later. And at this point, like I mentioned earlier, I had been on campus for 12 hours. So I went home.

Umm, Erm, and Hmms: Audio Problems Abound

I’ve unfortunately had less time to listen to podcasts as the semester continues and more work piles up but I have continued to be a regular listener of the BBC News Hour.  It’s a great program—I get to catch up on the international news during my twenty-minute drive to campus.  I’ve been paying more attention to how they use audio clips since we started thinking about our script.  News Hour often has a correspondent report where the reporter narrates the necessary backbones of the story and then includes witness interviews.  I want my podcast to follow my format so I’ve taken note of how they break up the audio, how questions are phrased, etc.  Now that I have one of my interviews done, I can return to script writing and editing with these tips in hand.

I think writing the script without the interviews made the process difficult because I don’t want to say something that could be said by my interview subject.  For example, I wanted to talk about the cultural and economic divide between NOVA and the rest of Virginia.  I said something to that effect in my script but then I got a great sound bite from my dad about how “Virginia is basically Northern Virginia and Richmond with Alabama in between.”  That’s way funnier and more likely to stick in my listeners’ minds after they’ve finished listening.

The relationship between writing the script and producing the audio is frustrating for me.  I feel more confident in my ability to write an interesting script (though I have a far way to go with my current draft), but I’m not well-spoken.  I worked on my introduction and imagined what I want it to sound like in my head but then I had the typical problems—I stumbled over words, mumbled, stuttered, etc.  I’m going to have to set aside a lot of time to record my audio because I’ll likely need a lot of takes and possibly just go paragraph by paragraph.

General Feedback on Draft Scripts

I am about halfway through the draft scripts.  I’m pleased with our first attempt at this type of writing, but a few trends have become clear.

1. Read your writing aloud at least once and revise it before you record it.  Everyone’s prose is clunky the first and second draft and you will need to do several revisions.  Make at least one revision based on the sound of the prose spoken aloud (which will be the eventual form it takes).

2. Get more specific and detailed to give a sense of the human drama, individual agency, and contingency in our situations.  In some cases, discussion of the experience of a situation will make it more compelling — the setting, for example.  In other cases, knowing more about the individuals who are making the decisions and taking the actions within an organization is the key.  In some cases, the context is key.  I’ve said before, this should not read like a term paper that we deliver aloud.  This is an audio story — it’s a different type of writing and we are going to have to go over it a few times to get it right.

3. Keep your segments short and your audio varied.  Just about everyone is going to have to revise and edit to keep things moving.

4. Get your interviews done as soon as possible and get your transcripts done so you can fill those [interview here] gaps in your script.

5.  Also, data.  I want numbers.  How many people?  How many votes?  How did the people translate into votes? No generalizations — give me data!

5a. On the data: no election stands alone or can be interpreted on its own.  If we are making claims about a statewide election, we need to compare our race with other statewide races or previous/later races for the same office.  Was it a larger margin of victory?  Smaller?  Make sure you tell us.

Blog Post for March 23, 2017

We will have a script discussion, a tool demo, and a visit from Kurt Luther.

What are you listening to?  What did you learn from the scriptwriting process?  What is the relationship between the writing process for the script and the production process for the audio product?   What was the greatest challenge of writing the script.  300-400 words.  Post by Wednesday 11:59pm [rather than the usual Tuesday].

Final Project

By now, you should have your final project set.  By Thursday, submit a paragraph to me via Canvas in which you give a synopsis of the whole project, then a list of products and suggested criteria for evaluating them.  What will constitute a success?

1. What is the site (URL) you will create or revise to manage your professional identity? What are the key features you will create or revise?

2. What is the medium of your project?

3a. What are the intellectual goals?  (eg making a set of analog archival materials on X subject publicly available over the web by digitizing and curating them.)

3b. What are the aesthetic goals?  (eg Having a basic, clean, and easily navigable site with meaningful metadata about the archival materials and full-screen viewing.  Making the archival materials available in high enough resolution that they can be scrutinized for research, not just for reference.)

3c. What are the technical goals? (Using an out-of-the-box content management system (CMS), adapting some cascading style sheets (CSS) and hypertext markup language (HTML), and using Dublin Core metadata schema).

 

Photographs as Facts

“More convincingly than any other kind of picture, a photograph evokes the tangible presence of reality” – John Szarkowski

What better way to tell a story, than providing your listener (or viewer) with a photograph providing a window into time. Szarkowski contends a photograph’s “most fundamental use and its broadest acceptance has been as a substitute for the subject itself – a simpler, more permanent, more clearly visible version of the plain fact.”

I’d like to share two photos that provide “facts” of the history of the Reynolds Homestead.

This first photo is one of the Reynolds Family Cemetery which tells the story about the plantation owner’s family. We see the two story brick home of family home in the background, and we see the monuments marking the lives of family members, enclosed within an ornate wrought iron fence.

The second photo tells a story about many other people who lived on the plantation. It is a photo from the cemetery for enslaved individuals. There is no home in site, there is no wrought iron fence surrounding granite markers. What we see are field stones which have been used to mark the graves of loved-ones who have passed.

These two photos state facts and provide a telling story about the contrast between the lives of the plantation owner’s family an the many other families and individuals that resided on the plantation.

Szarkowski’s lessons in composition and design can be useful for those engaged in digital history as he describes how we can capture a moment, edit the meanings and patterns of the world, and show things from a different perspective.

Photography

A) What is the relationship between storytelling and photography in history? Feel free to include historic photographs in your answer for reference.

Images can serve as their own glimpse into a story, but are most powerful as complements or contributors to an ongoing narrative. I see this most clearly reflected in photos of activists and their work. Images of protestors highlight the power of the individual, but specifically that individual’s role in a larger movement or narrative. As for the relationship between photography and storytelling in history, photos can both provoke questions about a certain period or person while history provides answers and meaning through context.

Photo by Declan Haun, 1963.

This image from Szarkowski’s collection is a perfect example of the individual contributing to a bigger story. It was taken in 1963, at the height of the fight for racial equality and the activism that fueled it. The photo made me want to know more. What was his background? Why was he there? His sign is a straightforward message that also provokes some questions: justice for who? Every African American subject to discrimination? A particular person that he knew of, or maybe was close to?

 

The history of the long struggle for civil rights provides this image with context and meaning. We learn about the Civil Rights Movement, its causes, and its effects because of people like this boy who took action. If that legacy doesn’t demonstrate the power of individual contributions to a cause, then I don’t know what would.

Photo by Ken Banate, 2017

A more recent image from this year’s Women’s March on Washington brought up similar questions and will likely influence what and how people learn about this current wave of activism. The women pictured here contribute to a longer history of internal conflict within modern feminism that emphasizes race as a crucial divide between women. This 2017 march highlighted this conflict from the beginning, from its original name as the Million Women March, which was a clear appropriation of an African American-centered march in the 1990s, and culminated in this photograph. The photographer was a friend of the woman holding the sign, so it was almost certainly staged to illustrate the issues that white feminism poses for all women. Just as with the image by Declan Haun, this photograph will contribute to a larger historical context surrounding American activism that highlights the roles of individuals in embodying social movements.
B) How can we apply Szarkowski’s lessons in composition and design to digital history? 

Szarkowski unknowingly and directly answers this question on page 6. After quoting Charles Baudelaire, Szarkowksi states that the new medium (photography) could not satisfy old standards (traditional art) and that the photographer “must find new ways to make his meaning clear.” This is precisely what digital history does: find new ways to present, depict, and construct historical meaning. Szarkowski goes on to describe the traditional field of art and the image and emphasizes how photographers break from this tradition. Digital history also breaks with traditional academic history, in terms of its content and form as well as its audience. Digital history engages a far broader audience that isn’t necessarily academic, while traditional history is exclusionary in that it only directs itself to other scholars. And though digital history still uses text, there is a much firmer role for visualization and therefore for photographs.