I’m coming back to the classroom today after two weeks of being a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome. I was given the opportunity to go there to work on writing something “different” (again?). It won’t be a text book like my last, and it’s not data dump but a book driven by telling a good story. It’s difficult and challenging and, if I’m honest, like nothing I’ve really ever tried to do before. I always love working on becoming a better writer in every project I undertake. This one’s exciting because it involves rummaging through a whole tool-box of narrative, voice, characterization, tone, and description that were otherwise set aside during my academic training, but that, as a long-time writer, I’ve always enjoyed playing with. (I’m not saying any more about the project!).
When I had the chance to do some work in the tech world a while back–outside the academy, a true breath of fresh air, I must say–I realized that these were the kinds of powerful tools that humanities folks had to contribute to conversations involving all sorts of enterprises, non-profit, for-profit, start-up, and otherwise. Even the hard work of collaborative and group writing were things that humanities people were good at. That’s why, to me, just as storytelling is an essential component of what the humanities can teach us to do well, digital storytelling is something that needs a greater place in the digital humanities. Digital humanities can’t just mean “learning to code.”
So, then I faced a problem. I was getting ready for Rome, but I had to think hard about what would happen in my classes while I was away. I didn’t want to have my Saint Louis students to have to sit in a classroom, taught by my (admittedly amazing) colleagues while I had the unique opportunity to go out into the world to do my research. The more I thought about, if I was really honest with myself—that storytelling is a craft—then what I needed to do was to find a way for them to realize that, too. These two weeks should give them the opportunity, I told myself, to practice skills for jobs they might be good at–but never realized. And that’s when I realized that what I wanted my history students to do was a mini-version of what I was doing.
They would work in teams to prepare a short podcast that was related to our class, and their goal, over two weeks, was to make sure it was uploaded to our team drive by the last day I was away. I would download their episodes and listen to their adventures (more on the subject of what they were doing in a moment) on my plane ride home. To help them—they’re young, but they have different interests, different skills, and many may not have known anything about how to make a podcast—they were given a specific prompt and a series of deadlines on our collaboration platform which they had to ping me at the end of the “work day,” 5pm Central, while I was away. I got progress reports on their museum visits (an essential part of the podcast), updates on their scripts, notes about team morale, job descriptions, and project management. From more than a thousand miles away, I was watching, every 24-48 hours, a six-minute podcast be produced by teams who were working with each other on a whole range of problem-solving that was based on historical content. They did such an amazing job in the planning stages, I even felt like I was there.
What I asked them to do was this.
The first-year students, who had just read the Odyssey with me and came from a range of academic classes—neuroscience, business, art, design, philosophy, physical therapy; not everyone was into classics or even history—were told that a new Odyssey movie was in production and that a PR firm in New York was interested in creating spin-off content for the launch of the movie. They were making a podcast called “Beyond the Odyssey” which would accompany the release of new film. (I really wanted to make sure they could visualize who they were writing for, and in this case, they were not writing for just their professor; a stodgy ten-page paper assignment, this was not. And I didn’t want to fall into the equally dangerous trap of not giving them any guidance and then, being unfairly upset when I didn’t a “deliverable” that fell short of my own unique idea of a good radio show.) Audience always matters.
Each episode of the podcast, I told them, pretending to be their direct report, would be narrated and produced by college students. It would tell the journey of a group of students as they met, left campus for the afternoon, and journeyed to their local art museum. The tone would have to be casual; the students needed to seem familiar with one another; and it should sound like they might even get along as friends. When they get to the museum, they would get excited about describing an object that came from a culture beyond Homer’s Greece but that dated to roughly the same time in the past. I told them our company had data research that suggests our podcast audience—in the 25-35 age range—would enjoy immensely as the narrators described what their object looks like, why they were attracted to talk about it, and how it reminded them about the Odyssey—since everyone remembers reading Odyssey in college, right?
I remember, when we did the project walk-through before I left, they all laughed when they imagined who they were writing for. 25-35 year olds are stuck in traffic on the subway going to their first office jobs, I told them; or riding their bikes to their work. Some of them want to imagine they’re still back in a simpler time, like college. “You should try to take them back there.” The cool thing for the listeners of the podcast, I said, would be to hear how each team incorporated many different viewpoints since not everyone in the museum will react to the object in the same way. Everyone, after all, has a different background. The first years were assigned wings of the museum—the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—and instructed to find something that came from the period we had been studying, with Homer.
The second years, history majors and minors, had a slightly more difficult task. We had been reading Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra together to talk about what makes good historical writing. They needed to find a museum object that came from a culture or time beyond Cleopatra’s Mediterranean but that resonated with what they knew about Egypt’s most famous Hellenistic queen. The podcast would be called “Ghosts of Cleopatra.” They had to use their skills as young storytellers to put together an episode that linked two seemingly different things around a common theme that haunts both: hearts broken, empires lost, talents ignored. All of it was perfect for a Halloween episode, too. Cleopatra herself is a very intriguing, complex figure, and there were lots of ways to run with “ghosts”!
I just flew back to St. Louis last night, and I listened to all the episodes of “Beyond the Odyssey” and “Ghosts of Cleopatra” on the plane. I did so with a big grin on my face and was even laughing at loud at one or two points. What my 35 students in two classes had produced in two weeks now boggles my mind. They were, in ways I never even imagined, funny, serious, very, very smart, creative (“Let’s ride Lime scooters there!”), and thoughtful. They’ve all made me a better writer, and I think they’ve made their own history classes something they’ll always remember.