It's not an exaggeration: Dr. Liz Covart teaches early American history to thousands.
Through her podcasts, she enables listeners both in and outside of academia to learn from some of the leading researchers in the field and delve deeply into the whats, whys, and hows of the American past. Episodes of Ben Franklin's World contain in-depth interviews with historians that focus on interesting historical figures, events, and places. In collaboration with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, she also produces Doing History, a podcast series about how and why historians study history.
Q: What inspired you to practice history in the particular way you do, via podcasting/blogging instead of through a traditional teaching/research position?
A: In 2001, I secured an internship with the National Park Service and that internship turned into a multi-year job as a seasonal interpretive ranger. While working for the NPS, I witnessed something I call the “David McCullough phenomenon.” When I started my internship, visitors to the Bunker Hill Monument and the Charlestown Navy Yard would inquire about how to get to Cheers or the Hard Rock Cafe, sometimes Fenway Park or Harvard. Only occasionally (at least that’s how it felt) would a visitor ask a question about the American Revolution. It seemed like a majority of visitors were walking the Freedom Trail simply because that is what you’re supposed to do when you’re in Boston.
The next summer, when I returned to work for the NPS as a ranger, David McCullough published John Adams. Over the next several summers, I witnessed more and more visitors asking probing questions about the American Revolution and showing a real interest in our historic sites. McCullough’s book sparked most of this interest. After 2002, many visitors prefaced their questions with a variation of “I never liked history, but I read John Adams because all my friends were reading it and everyone was talking about it.” Then they’d go on to talk about their new love for history and ask great historical questions.
David McCullough’s John Adams taught me about the power of communication. The way we communicate history is important. If we do it right, historians can get people excited enough about history that they’re willing to visit historic sites and read 700-page books about history. So I went off to graduate school with the idea that I wanted to study not just history, but how we communicate history.
When I finished graduate school, I realized that the best way for me to practice history was to embrace digital forms of communication. Honestly, I thought I’d research and write a lot of history books and articles while blogging about my work. However within a year of graduating, I discovered podcasts and became hooked on their convenience and intimacy. I quickly became a rabid podcast listener and when I couldn’t find a podcast about early American history to listen to, I decided to start one. That’s how Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History came to be.
Q: For the purposes of your podcast, how do you define “early America”?
A: I define early America broadly. The podcast focuses on the history of North America and the United States from just before 1492 until around 1820. However, the topics I cover on the podcast span what historians have come to call “Vast Early America.” Neither colonial North America nor the United States developed apart from the rest of the world. Events in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and even the Pacific impacted how the North American colonies and later the United States participated in politics and trade and developed their cultures and economies. So, I interview scholars about the history of early North America and the fledgling United States and about events, people, and ideas that came about in non-North American regions with eye toward seeing how the history of those areas affected early American history.
Q: Did any events from colonial America predict any political and cultural institutions we have today?
A: Most of us learn about history as a linear progression of events. Yet when you get into the historical record and examine the letters, documents, objects, and oral traditions of the past, you find that history is full of contingency. Nothing about how the history of the United States occurred was inevitable.
For example, the Continental Army and Patriot militia almost lost the Battle of Saratoga, the 1777 battle in upstate New York that provided the excuse the French needed to openly support the United States in its fight for independence, because the people of New England and New York squabbled over who should supply the soldiers with food and equipment. This dispute led to patriot soldiers not being well-equipped or fed and to state and congressional inquiries that distracted from the real issue at hand: General John Burgoyne was marching his army swiftly into the Hudson River Valley with the object of separating New England and New York from the rest of the colonies. If the patriots had squabbled longer or if the murder of Jane McCrea by Native Americans allied with Burgoyne had not happened to rouse the patriots out of their regional dispute, Burgoyne would have succeeded with his plan and the War for Independence would have been different.
With that said, the past and present always influence history. For example, the governments of the Greek and Roman Republics, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Swiss Confederacy all influenced the shape and form of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787.
Q: Why is Benjamin Franklin emblematic of this time period?
A: Benjamin Franklin lived a remarkable life in a remarkable age. His life spanned most of the eighteenth century, from January 1706 to April 1790, and he took part in life and events in both North America and Europe. Most notably, Franklin participated in the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. He traveled to Canada, England, and mainland Europe and he shared his ideas in letters and publications that spanned those geographic areas too.
Franklin appeals to many in the present day because he worked as a printer, writer, scientist, postmaster, and politician and as a result of all this work almost everyone can find an area of Franklin's interests or an aspect of his humor to connect to. History is about people past and present so it’s not surprising that many of us connect to history through people.
Q: What will modern listeners of your podcast find valuable about events from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America?
A: History is about who we are and how we came to be who were are. As Americans our roots are in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America and we can’t understand who we are today and how we came to our present-day circumstances unless we understand and grapple with those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century roots. Each episode of Ben Franklin’s World opens a window on to why people acted the way they did, why events turned out the way they did, and how places and ideas have changed over time. Most listeners enjoy how the past shows us how we are different from and yet very similar to the people of the past. They also enjoy discovering more about why we still face some of the same challenges people living two hundred and three hundred years ago faced.
Q: What about the podcast format works well for your subject matter, versus, say, a blog or YouTube channel?
A: History is about people and podcasts offer historians a great way to humanize the past. Humans have evolved in such a way that we still learn best through oral storytelling. Podcasts provide us with a very intimate way to tell oral stories. Think about the way you listen to a podcast. For most of us it's by placing earbuds in our ears and inviting our favorite podcasters to speak directly into our brains when we press play. For others, it may involve inviting your favorite podcaster to join you for your daily commute; when you press play, it's just you and them in your car. Regardless of how you listen, podcasts provide an intimate experience.
It’s this intimate experience that makes podcasts a great medium for conveying history. Most of us remember stories better when we hear them. The same is true for history. We remember it better and connect with it more when another human being tells us about it and invites us to explore it with them. That’s what each episode of Ben Franklin’s World invites listeners to do—join a couple of historians on a detailed investigation of some aspect of our early American past.
Podcasts also allow us to do more with our time. Unlike a blog post or a YouTube video where our eyes have to be glued to a screen, you can listen to a podcast anywhere. Podcasts allow us to turn the time we spend walking the dog/going for a run/cooking dinner/folding laundry/commuting to work into an enjoyable, enriching experience. Podcasts make history easy and convenient to explore and more memorable because of their spoken-voice format.
Q: What role do you see podcasts such as yours (as well as other media) playing in the dissemination of information that has traditionally been the onus of formal educational institutions?
A: Podcasts complement traditional media and make all historical work more widely available. Many historians convey their work in books and articles published by academic institutions. Unfortunately, these organizations can't afford to buy shelf space in brick and mortar bookstores or run marketing campaigns to promote their authors’ work. Most of these institutions are small, non-profit publishing houses with shrinking budgets. As a result, many history lovers who would love to read more about history don’t know about the abundance of great work out there. And if they do know this work exists, they often wonder whether it’s worth their time and money to consume.
Podcasts allow people to learn about history in a meaningful and personal way when it’s convenient for them. Plus by the time someone finishes a podcast episode they know whether or not they want to purchase and read a historian’s book or visit their historic site and exhibit. Podcasts help people manage their time better.
Q: As a researcher, blogger, and podcaster, what are your favorite analog and digital tools for writing, research, and general productivity?
A: I write about history in both text and audio on my 11-inch MacBook Air. My favorite apps include Google Drive, Evernote, Trello (project management), Zotero (citation management) and Scrivener. Scrivener has become my go-to writing program when I’m working on my book project because I can use it both as a program to write in and as a database to store all of my research.
I also take a lot of notes with pen and paper. I love the Circa notebook system from Levenger because it’s customizable and helps me organize all the loose paper in my life. I also have a Moleskine Pro Collection notebook for each of my big projects such as the “Doing History” podcast series I co-produce with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. I love the index in the front of those notebooks and I often find the best way to work out new ideas is with pen and paper.
Q: What does a typical work day look like for you?
A: I’m one of those lucky people who works from home. On editing days, I spend most of the day at my computer listening to interviews I’ve recorded and editing them so my guest scholars sound great and listeners will hear an episode that has a coherent, easy-to-follow story. Editing audio and producing a podcast episode takes a long time. By the time listeners hear the final version, I’ve invested about an hour of work for every minute they hear.
On non-editing days, I read books to prepare for new podcast interviews, answer listener e-mails, and conduct research for new episodes and my book projects in libraries. I view my Synapse 19 backpack as my mobile office because it carries everything I need to work away from my home office.
Q: What are some accessible but smart books about early American history that you like to recommend to non-historians?
A: This is a tough question because there are so many, well-researched and accessible books about early American history!
If you’re interested in an overview of colonial American history, I suggest you start with Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. Likewise, if you’re looking for an overview of the American Revolution, his new book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, will provide you with a well-researched and highly readable book about the American Revolution. Nearly every history book you read will lead you to other fantastic works. Just follow the notes to find them. When an author notes something that interests you or makes a point that causes you to think, look at the note number at the end of the sentence or paragraph and find the note in the back of the book. When you find the note, you will be rewarded with a list of the books and articles on a topic that interest you.
Liz Covart holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Davis. In addition to producing Ben Franklin's World and Doing History, she authors a blog on her website and serves as Lapidus Initiative Assistant Editor for New Media at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. She is currently working on two book projects.