Guest Post: Cody Foster, “The Key To Enhancing Your Graduate Experience? Take Risks.” [#AHA276]

This is the second in a series of three posts from the participants in the session “Say It Like You Mean It: Graduate Education and Creative Expression in Thinking, Making, and Doing History” held at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association. The intent of our session was to take a deep and discerning look at the ways in which History Ph.D. programs prepare their students for a radically-changed job landscape. As you’ll see in these posts, we take a critical stance towards the status quo, and argue that graduate programs in particular, and the historical profession in general, need to fundamentally re-think the ways in which they train the next generation of professional historians.

For part one of this series, click HERE.

Cody J. Foster is a Historian and Presidential Fellow at the University of Kentucky where he specializes in U.S. foreign relations and American political history. He has been featured in the USA Today, New York Times, and Courier-Journal, and has written articles for Huffington Post, History News Network, and the Lexington-Herald Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @codyjfoster or check out his site at www.codyjfoster.com. And be sure to check out the Long Story Short podcast!


Graduate education has been limited to three interrelated constraints placed upon the candidate by the department: (1) the needs of the department, (2) limited departmental funding, and (3) both a rapid and unvaried path toward the professorate.

Department needs range from year to year depending on the course offerings and course loads. Unfortunately, research assistantships have long been consumed by teaching assistantships as severe budget cuts have cut the number of available graduate students to only the minimal number of assistantships.

I say “unfortunate,” because the former used to provide an apprentice-type education to students who sought to work with a specific professor. Under their tutelage students would learn the ins and outs of professional research while concurrently benefiting from several bylines on their CV.

Today, the teaching assistantship reigns supreme not so much to train graduate students in the art of teaching, but simply because it’s what the department requires. Ask any graduate student how much pedagogical training they’ve received and the overwhelming answer will be “very little” if not “none at all.” Whereas departments once focused on holistic training, “research” training is now relegated to seminars while “teaching” training has gone the way of the dinosaur.

To be fair, I don’t believe that departments have given up on graduate student education. Instead, I think the blame lies more with the university’s larger administration and, perhaps, the governance of any given state. In Kentucky, for example, Governor Matt Bevin and the Republican ruled assembly have severely cut university funding by 4.5% by the end of the 2016-2017 fiscal year and another 9% by the following fiscal year. This has most severely affected the arts and humanities as “precious funding” (as one administrator labeled it) is foremost reserved for the sciences. In a state where the governor and lieutenant governor proudly proclaim French literature and history both as worthless degrees because they are “not degrees that would land a job,” you can guarantee that department funding in history will be massively reduced. Kentucky is but one example.

The point is that reduced funding prevents departments from offering the kind of training that they may have offered in past decades.

That being said, history departments share the blame for the decline in graduate education precisely because they are not adequately prepared to train students for jobs in the non-academic sector. This should not be taken as a blanket statement because many programs, George Mason University, for example, are quite well known for their holistic training.

On the whole, I’m afraid, programs have either eliminated or simply never added training in careers that lie outside of academia. I believe this is largely to do with the reality that departments hire professors who come out of that traditional academic model. Still, opportunities do exist where history Ph.D. alumni, for example, can return to the classroom, offer an internship, or visit a seminar via Skype to speak with graduate students about their own particular career paths. The disconnect exists when the department fails to bridge the gap between their graduate students and the world beyond the academy.

Now, this isn’t so much a criticism as it an observation based on what we consistently see in reputable sources such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and Perspectives on History. We can see this in diatribes found on the blogosphere, on Facebook, and on Twitter. The leading experts on non-academic career paths, Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In blog and Jennifer Polk of the From PhD to Life blog, are most outspoken on the need for departments to better equip their graduate students with a wider set of skills to make them more marketable for jobs beyond the academy.

Yet, the fact of the matter is that departments are not equipped – financially or professionally – to provide graduate students with a tailored training program designed exclusively for an individual student.

I am writing to urge that graduate students to take a proactive approach to equipping themselves with tools specific to their career goals. We no longer have the time passively sit aside. Our profession is in crisis and we must take the steps necessary to enhance our own education. Our future careers depend wholly on our taking risks.

We are here to argue that the best experience lies in a graduate student’s individual willingness to create their own program within the department’s existing program so that they can tailor their training to meet their career goals.

In 2015 the interim history department head at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Tracy Campbell, approached a fellow graduate student, Dara Vance, and myself to talk about the academic year. We covered everything from graduate concerns to department needs. We also talked about creating a new project designed to appeal to professionals, graduates, undergraduates, and the public to showcase the department’s activities, our professor’s publications, and ways to get undergraduates to continue enrolling in our history courses. We brainstormed for over an hour before we settled on a single word: podcasting.

Of course, podcasting isn’t new. Along with co-creator Adam Curry, software engineer David Winer coined the term in 2004 and received patent number 7,568,213 for the creation of the “podcast” in 2009. On 13 August 2004, Winer published Daily Source Code, a serial podcast about the podcasting scene, news, his own life, and other ongoings. It spread like wildfire. On 3 October 2014, This American Life released a spin-off program run by journalist Sarah Koenig called Serial. Week by week the host investigated a murder trial to discover whether the original defendant was truly guilty of the crime he committed. This is what the New York Times had to say about the series:

To call something the most popular podcast might seem a little like identifying the tallest leprechaun, but the numbers are impressive for any media platform. ‘Serial’ has been downloaded or streamed on iTunes more than five million times – at a cost of nothing – and averages over 1.5 million listeners an episode….Ira Glass, the host of ‘This American Life,’ told me his show took  four years to reach one million listeners. ‘Serial’ raced past that in a month.

After winning several awards, a sketch on Saturday Night Live, and a second season, academics assumed ownership over its legacy by calling its impact the “Serial Effect.” A title unclaimed by any other show yet pursued by every producer. The “Serial Effect” is a term used to describe successful podcasts that, seemingly overnight, receive hundreds of thousands if not millions of listeners. As “trending” is for twitter, the “Serial Effect” is for podcasts.

So, Dara and I set out to pursue the “Serial Effect.” With each of us teaching two classes, writing seminar papers, pursuing our own work, studying for the qualifying exams, having absolutely zero funding, and having no knowledge about podcasting, we were in a terrible position.

First, we did our research. What does a history podcast look like and are they even successful? Sociologist Josh Morgan studies the societal impact of podcasting and produced the following statistics: History ranks #26 out of 57 subcategories with 3,052 total podcasts on iTunes that describe their genre as “history.” With history ranking halfway between “Christianity” at number one with 39,740 podcasts and Aviation last with 147 podcasts, we knew we had to figure out what it takes to create a successful history podcast.

Sadie Bergen argued in Perspectives on History that successful podcasts such as Stuff you Missed in History Class (which consistently tops 3 million downloads per month) have one trick up their sleeves: they tell good stories. The owner of this podcast, Tracy Wilson, writes that the aims to uncover interesting stories that one could share at a dinner party. This is but one of many podcasts that accompany a website that holds a bibliography, research notes, and other appendix type information for the interested listener.

Just last year, three of the most recognized podcasts – Backstory with the American History Guys, Who Makes Cents? A History of Capitalism Podcast, and The Urban Historians hosted a roundtable at the 2016 AHA Conference. Brian Balogh, one of the Backstory co-hosts, commented during the session that despite their being recognized historians, they are able to tap into their audience (as we would a reader) and uses this “to look outside of the fishbowl of academic and consider new ways of telling stories.” The latter two podcasts are also produced by academic historians, but they recognize that their audience is mostly for historians. Here they open up a dialogue about recent research in an informal conversation – like meeting Terry Gross of Fresh Air at a bar.

So-step number one is: tell a good story.

But how were we going to do this? Should we interview individual professors? Should we talk to each other? Should we do an audio podcast or a video podcast? Should we merely record the lectures of our professors and post them online?

Most importantly, who is listening? Just like we do when we are writing our papers, we needed to keep in mind the audience that would be digesting our work. We decided we should tailor our podcast to appeal to an 18-25 year old crowd so that we could build a bridge between what historians in the department produce and what undergraduate students are asking. If we truly believe that history is a tool by which we can connect our past to our present – then our podcast would capture that spirit and make it a tangible reality.

As such, we started with simple questions: Does my vote count? Have things always been this violent? Why has it taken so long for the United States to elect a female president? Are dogs for anything other than being my best friend and lazy pet? What is the true meaning of Christmas?

Step number two: find an audience and pursue their interests.

Next, we needed to decide how to frame our episode. There are several approaches to take. Professional historians and graduate might be more interested in using this resource as a way to provide further traction for their lectures and conference papers. Recording a lecture or a paper would sustain a topic far beyond a particular class or conference by allowing one’s peers to creating a lasting dialogue. Had we recorded this panel, for example, we may have allowed those in the other rooms to listen to this panel at a later time.

Another way you can use podcasting is to let a lone commentator read their papers aloud. This might involve a works-in-progress paper or even a paper that you’d like to submit to an academic journal. By recording your paper and posting it online, historians from around the world can listen to it and provide feedback via e-mail.

The method we chose is the Talk Show Model where a host interviews a series of guests about a particular topic or theme.

Just a few years ago, Krista Sigler wrote, “This is where the historical profession has not made a dent in podcasting.” And even though today we have a couple of very good, mainstream podcasts that represent the profession, only a select minority bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the public at large. This is particularly tragic in the field of history. EconTalk at Duke University, for example, is a praised weekly podcast whereby economists discuss their ideas in a way that is accessible for a wide audience.

In order to better promote the department, we decided to interview only University of Kentucky historians. We selected 3 historians for each episode who had an area of expertise that aligned with the questions themes. In the episode, they could answer the question, promote their work, and provide resources for further exploration. Most episodes reflected the historian’s personal experience with the topic as well as historical narratives that captured the audience’s attention. With three segments per episode, the podcast came it somewhere between 30-40 minutes – enough time for you to enjoy it on your car ride home to and from work, walking around campus, jogging through town, and more.

Step number 3: Outline an episode (if not write a script) and invite guests to be interviewed who can speak to the episode’s topic. In this case, we could place our own historians at the University of Kentucky center stage while also providing a format that would keep the conversation accessible to wide audiences.

With equipment borrowed from the university’s technical divisions, we began recording our first few episodes. These materials were to The Hive, a multifunctional creative arts department within the College of Arts and Sciences. As they edited the episode alongside our outline and guidelines, we set to work by creating a catchy title and a thrilling graphic. When “LongStoryShort: A Brief History of History,” became the title, we sent it along with some ideas to the graphic artist who created an appealing logo. Within a few weeks, we had our first few episodes.

With the use of Twitter, E-Mail, iTunes, and Soundcloud we captured an audience of over 1,000 people around the world in under 24 hours. Most of the downloads occurred at the University of Kentucky ensuring that we were, in fact, reaching our intended audience. Most unexpectedly, though, we saw downloads all over the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, China, and elsewhere. The questions we were asking resonated with audiences all around the world and, overnight, the Department of History at the University of Kentucky had a global audience.

Step 4: Spend time editing the episode so that when you place it on social media, it spreads because its good.

 Over the next few months we appeared in university and local newspapers, received a congratulatory phone call from a congressional representative in California, and even secured on a spot on our local NPR affiliate.

Soon, professors teamed up with us to incorporate the podcast into their own curriculum. If they were speaking about black feminism and politics, for example, perhaps they could use the episode about Shirley Chisholm. One professor, Tammy Whitlock, is working on creating a curriculum that makes use of these episodes. Finally, we established an undergraduate branch of the podcast so that history undergraduate students could make their own episodes.

We completed our greatest accomplishment in August of 2016. The Kentucky Historical Association approached us and asked that we create an entire podcast about a National Endowment for the Humanities funded project that they were working on called The Civil War Governors Project. In our most downloaded and widely praised episode, we interviewed a team of six historians who told the tale of Caroline, a slave from Kentucky who was accused of murdering the infant of a prestigious businessman. The jury tried and sentenced Caroline to be hanged. The Civil War governor at the time pardoned Caroline because he viewed the evidence to be circumstantial. Modeled on the Serial podcast, this episode moved in six parts through the incident, the prosecution’s case, the defense’s case, the Decision, the family’s narrative, and the grander theme about black female slave resistance.

Sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission with the National Archives, and the Kentucky Historical Society, LongStoryShort subscribers and downloads skyrocket in just a few days. We never reached, nor do we expect to reach the download levels of Serial. However, we brought global recognition to UK’s Department of History, showcased the value of history in the 21st century, and expanded our own professional skill set.

Step 5: Take chances, pursue risk, adapt, and grow.

Look, I never entered the historical profession thinking that a podcast would lead to a future career, especially as a student who is, in fact, hunting for a job as a professor. Yet, my co-producer and I each developed new skills that we use to market ourselves on our CV. We promote our ability to work with digital and oral history, the ability to incorporate creative components into our academic careers, the ability to work with technology in ways that expands our knowledge and production of history. All in all, the podcast resulted in our unmatched ability to execute a new level of personal brand promotion that might lead us to new and exciting careers.

Podcasting is also a form of professional development – better researchers, teachers, etc. Balogh again explained that “co-hosting a radio show and podcast requires constant efforts to explain things in relatively simple, straightforward terms, without sacrificing the nuance and complexity that is the stuff of history.” Andrew Needham of The Urban Historians agrees that it will make you a better teacher by forcing you to ask questions and then letting the class speak instead of always attempting to “qualify, qualify, qualify.”

Podcasting is a tool for graduate students in that it teaches them new ways to use history to interact with the global public. It also teaches them that there are alternatives to textual-analysis that may be better suited for some history courses.

In other words, the podcast allows for graduate students to break free of the three departmental limitations and pursue a career based on 21st century tools. The podcast allows us to work independent of the department by creating our own form of apprenticeship alternative to the TA and RA, is a resource that requires little to no financial investment, and exposes graduates to new careers outside of the realm of academia. It’s scary, it’s new, and it requires a lot of work. But great risks will reap great achievements.

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