The Unfinished History Podcast is a project dedicated to discussing figures from marginalized communities during the era of the American Revolution (1765-1791) and connecting public history narratives with techniques and tools of the digital humanities.
The narratives of LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and women’s history are often hidden in traditional academic narratives and analyzed using inadequate metrics or less sophisticated tools. Traditional metrics – that is, the publication of monographs and scholarly essays and articles – do not always include “the digital,” and as a result, impede dissemination and exploration of marginalized narratives to and by the public. Through the use of traditional research, digital deliverables, and expert interviews, The Unfinished History Podcast argues that marginalized histories deserve to be part of the mainstream narrative, and that this project is an effective way to amend these oversights. In The Unfinished History Podcast, the multiple DH items in each episode serve to bring this “digital” element into the project as a whole. Other digital projects are referenced to foster a sense of digital, scholarly community. Further, The Unfinished History Podcast maintains that the employment of digital tools such as podcasting, textual analysis, and virtual modeling serves not only to highlight the important histories of these aforementioned communities, but to affirm the importance of amateur digital scholarship. The project goal is not only to discuss marginalized contributions to American history, but also to show listeners that they need not be “experts” in history nor the digital humanities to make valid arguments and products.
The podcast includes six episodes:
- Episodes 1, 3, and 5 contain researched historical content focusing on figures from the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and women’s communities, respectively. In these episodes, each host discusses one historical figure and provides related historical context and analysis.
- Episodes 2, 4, and 6 are interviews with professors with expertise in the fields of the digital humanities (DH) and/or public history whose work relates to LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and women’s history, with some overlap.
- All episodes have two DH project shoutouts, in which the hosts recommend a DH project they’ve discovered and wish to recommend to the listeners. Episodes 1, 3, and 5 also each have a DH component: an analysis of word clouds for Episode 1, a 3D SketchUp model for Episode 3, and a website-building tutorial for Episode 5.
Scope and Tools:
The scope for the project was determined in 2021 when an early prototype of the podcast was launched. At the time, co-host Claire Lavarreda was partnered with graduate student Luke Pilkington in a graduate seminar in which they created a podcast entitled Patriots and Tax Evaders. The topical focus on the American Revolution arose when Luke, a British student, made several jokes about America’s self-perception of its history. By 2022, Luke was unable to continue the project, and co-host Catarina Tchakerian joined in his place. The project was reconceptualized, but its era of focus remained the American Revolution. The scope of the project and its deliverables was redefined, with the hosts deciding on six episodes and a website. The length of each episode (20+ minutes) and the unseen labor put into researching the script and creating the digital accompaniments necessitated the number of episodes be limited to six.
With this number established, Claire and Catarina selected the tools that would be used to execute the project, including Audacity, WordPress, Voyant Tools, SketchUp, Photoshop, ProCreate, Trello, and Google Drive. These tools and platforms were chosen based on their familiarity, affordability, and accessibility. Both hosts had some basic experience with these tools, and felt they were feasible for their audience to try, as well.
Research and Recording:
The research process to script each content-based episode was intensive. First, Claire and Catarina established an episode topic. For example, it was decided that Episode 1 would focus on LGBTQ+ figures. Once the topic was established, the hosts conducted independent research to identify a historical figure to analyze. To continue the example of Episode 1, Claire chose the Baron von Steuben, and Catarina chose Lieutenant Enslin. Once the figures were selected, Claire and Catarina continued their research separately using academic resources. This research utilized Northeastern University’s Snell Library holdings and databases, as well as the Internet Archive. When enough information was gathered, the hosts wrote their own notes and summaries on their chosen figure, including primary sources like letters alongside secondary sources like articles and monographs. With research complete, the hosts came together to collaborate on a final script.
Once the script was finished, it could be recorded. The hosts reserved a recording studio in Snell Library to record most episodes. The audio was captured on Catarina’s RODE NT-USB microphone, linked to her laptop computer running Audacity. When each recording session was complete, Catarina edited the audio. The episodes were transcribed using Otter.ai and uploaded along with their transcripts to the project website. The process was identical for interview episodes, except that the hosts’ research focused upon the interviewee’s work and research interests.
In the content-based episodes, the hosts embraced the opportunity to connect their primary and secondary source research via historical interpretation of the evidence. Given their educational backgrounds in academic history writing and research, both hosts were comfortable formulating arguments and narratives through a mixture of evidence and interpretation. Additionally, this interpretive structure allowed the hosts to utilize their skills in interpretation honed through their public-history focused graduate coursework. Further, this format provides an example of these skills to listeners, particularly students. Finally, the conversational quality created through interjections of interpretation allowed the hosts to remain true to the friendly communication style popular in cohosted podcasts.
Interview-based episodes were incorporated into the project for a number of reasons. Firstly, they provided an opportunity to add expert voices to the podcast. These episodes provided an opportunity to give airtime to interesting and impactful work being done in the digital humanities, public history, and pedagogy. The research undertaken by the expert guests also served as a concrete example to the listeners of how the broader topics of The Unfinished History Podcast could manifest as real projects. Further, the experts stand as role models and examples to listeners of the kinds of jobs and work that can be done in the fields of public history and/or the digital humanities, hopefully serving to inspire as much as educate.
As previously established, the use of tools like Voyant Tools or SketchUp was based partially on the hosts’ familiarity with them. The steps taken to create the digital components of episodes 1, 3, and 5 were therefore conducted in reverse. First, the tool was chosen – for example, Voyant Tools for Episode 1. Next, the purpose of that tool as a digital component of the episode was determined. Claire, for example, decided to use Voyant Tools to generate word clouds that visualized letters sent by and between the Baron von Steuben and his lovers versus his peers. Next, the digital product was generated – this process varied depending on the tool of choice. In the instance of the word clouds, Claire first obtained a sample of the Baron’s letters, uploaded them to Voyant Tools, and generated the desired word clouds. Finally, the hosts summarized their analyses of the digital component’s findings to share in the episode recording. The discussion of each digital component highlighted the intervention it supported. In Claire’s case, the word cloud visualizations created using Voyant Tools supported existing historical hypotheses regarding the Baron’s sexuality.
Overall, The Unfinished History Podcast utilizes a wide variety of tools and techniques to maintain two interventions: 1. Individuals from female, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities were present during the American Revolution and played a vital role in its history. These communities deserve to be spoken about in the same way that traditionally canonized leaders like Thomas Jefferson are remembered, and 2. Digital scholarship – including the work of amateurs – is a valid form of scholarship and can help bridge gaps in the historical record regarding marginalized histories.
The creators acknowledge that academic history has made leaps forward in the identification of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ histories over the last few decades. It would be inaccurate to portray The Unfinished History Podcast as the sole contribution to this area: indeed, Northeastern University’s recent “Reckonings” project is a testament to ongoing scholarly efforts to reconstruct and preserve marginalized histories. This project, although comparatively small, aims to contribute to the work pioneered by other scholars and practitioners in history and the digital humanities. Our work attempts to participate in the broader push to prioritize social justice in history work and reflects the widespread progress of pedagogical and digital projects toward this goal.