Assignments for Week 3

Please complete the following assignments in time for class on Friday, January 21. Please be sure to share your thoughts in the comment section below. Also, please be prepared to discuss these media and readings in class.

As you may know, the PSU Library facilitates student connection to a number of digital films via Films on Demand. I have set up a playlist for you that is accessible here. Please note that you may need to use your PSU Odin login to access the library site and establish a Films on Demand account here.

In this playlist, I have posted a link to an episode of Ken Burns’ series The Civil War. Please watch Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Then, read Eric Foner’s letter Changing Interpretation at Gettysburg NMP and David W. Blight’s article “What Will Peace among the Whites Bring?”: Reunion and Race in the Struggle over the Memory of the Civil War in American Culture” (link to the article in JSTOR).

1. Please post responses to the following questions:

  • For our project, what can we learn from Burns’ production and the subsequent critique?
  • Do you recognize any of the interpretive techniques now utilized by the NPS? Which ones?
  • What might we (and might we not) want to model from Burns?
  • How can our work be informed by the critiques of both Burns’ documentary and the NPS’ late-1990’s approach to historical interpretation at Gettysburg?

Next, read David L. Larsen’s article Be Relevant or Become a Relic: Meeting the Public Where They Are.

2. Please post responses to the following the questions:

  • How can the NPS’ approach to historical interpretation — represented by this article and the readings, classroom discussion, and videos in the “Meaningful Interpretation” series — help us to address the themes in Holding the High Ground and also avoid the pitfalls identified in the critiques of both Burns’ documentary and the NPS’ past historical interpretation?
  • Are Foner’s specific critiques of NPS interpretation at Gettysburg in 1998  addressed by the NPS’ approach to interpretation and the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2011? Please be specific.

Finally, please visit the website for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities podcast BackStory with the American History Guys, then select and listen to one full-length episode. NOTE: all past episodes are available in their archives for free download or streaming.

3. Please post responses to the following questions:

  • What episode did you choose?
  • What is the intended audience?
  • Did the hosts utilize any interpretive techniques you’ve studied? How?
  • How does the profession of the hosts (historians within academia) affect the message?
  • In his article above, Larsen argues that “resource professionals must take an anthropological position of understanding perspectives and diverse meanings, and stand outside of perspectives and meanings in order to communicate and provide opportunities for audiences to make personal, real, and significant connections to the resource.” Is this approach reflected in the podcast episode you’ve chosen? How or how not?
  • What technical aspects of the podcast should we consider in crafting our plan? Length? Multiple hosts? Guests? Voiced primary sources? Sound effects or music?

About Greg Shine

Adjunct faculty in the History Department at Portland State University, where I teach historic site interpretation. Former Chief Ranger & Historian at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
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37 Responses to Assignments for Week 3

  1. Amy Platt says:


    I chose “Teed Off: the Tea Party, Then and Now.” The intended audience is general, I think, although podcasts like this tend to have a self-selected audience. Still, the format and language were accessible–no jargon, and terms were defined.

    Good job, Greg! This format fits in well with Larsen’s article. The hosts take a look at the rhetorical background of the Tea Party to see how it matches up ideologically. Tough, because the Boston Tea Party is one of those sacred events in our social memory (what a handy term), and the deconstruction of some of the myths surrounding it could be a challenge to the present political party. So, they first describe the Tea Party (party) and allow members to describe the main tenets, and the connection to the Boston Tea Party as they understand them. Primary sources! Then the experts are called on to describe the context, causes, and interpretation of the BTP. The expert historian (which elevates the discussion above mere political differences or debates) and the hosts have an exchange which acknowledges the idealogical consistency between the past and present first–which follows Larsen’s strategy for finding common ground; followed by a critical discussion identifying idealogical gaps.
    But, even though these hosts use a few of the same interpretive techniques that follow the NPS plan–use of experts, multiple perspectives, mix of facts and analysis–a podcast like this is not a perfect model for us. It speculates, it’s too conversational, and it wanders a bit, sometimes introducing new information without investigation. Our podcasts need to be polished and directed–more Ken Burns-like (in form, not content!).

    The length was good–half hour. The themes are big enough that we shouldn’t go under 25 minutes or so. At first thought: one narrator; no more than 3 experts that can each make a complete argument by the end of the podcast; reenactments aplenty; yes music!

  2. Melissa Swank says:

    Part 3. “Naughty & Nice: A History of The Holiday Season” – December 2010

    Having just come out of the holiday season, I chose this episode mainly for personal interests… I just enjoy the holidays! The first thing I noticed about this podcast was the lack of academic jargon and the casual language that is used. It’s clear that this podcast is intended for the general public, however without seeming to water-down key events. The podcasts delve into the the headlines of today and explore the deeper historical roots in a refreshing, and entertaining, way.

    I really appreciate the specialists from each of the three centuries of this country. 18th, 19th, and 20th century American historians each get a chance to contribute to the discussion which aides in distributing authority. I feel that the use of numerous, equal narrators leads to a more trustworthy, believable broadcast. In essence, I get the feeling that “These guys, specialists of different centuries, all agree on the fluidity of narration, they must have it right.” As we are often told as historians, add more voices, more views, it solidifies your argument. David Larsen’s article also suggests having a multiplicity of voices. By feeding on popular issues, this particular podcast does a great job at knowing and understanding its audience. Such podcasts would not be so intriguing if the issue had no current-day link to the audience.

    As far as technical aspects, there are three hosts, with stories, phone calls, sound effects, related music, etc. that really help to keep the podcast from being monotonous, it keeps the listener engaged, and also broadens the content of the discussion. Outside of the three standard hosts, several guests also appeared in this episode including: Stephen Nissenbaum, historian and author of “The Battle for Christmas,” John Gibson, host of Fox News Radio and author of “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse than You Thought,” Rabbi Laura Baum, founder of, and Tyrone Jones, Santa Claus impersonator at Cheltenham Square Mall. Issues and topics included the evolution of Christmas as an “American” holiday, debunking the popular myths of Christmas and Hanukah, and Tyrone Jones talks about what it’s like to be a Santa Claus who doesn’t look like the expected, “white” Santa. It’s also appealing that the show has a call-in time, where listeners can “call-in” and join in the conversation. Thus, everything does not seem to be so pre-plotted and allows for a more natural feel.

    As a whole, I would definitely consider listening to this podcast. Best I’ve listened to and I think it provides and excellent example of what our podcasts have the potential of becoming.

  3. Amy Platt says:


    I had trouble with this one, but I’ll answer your questions first.

    Larsen identifies the challenges of thoughtful, history-based interpretation–that’s half the battle. Unlike Burns, he is not focused on putting together a coherent narrative sometimes at the expense of detail; and unlike previous NPS interpretive models, he is not avoiding controversy by sticking to a rote, report-like script. Rather, he looks to find accessible narratives and maintain the integrity of each historical (and historic) site. He is most interested in the interplay between the visitor and the place and how interpreters can facilitate this interplay by finding common ground. As the dialectic from last week showed us, universal themes are the best way to find common ground, and Holding the High Ground has identified themes that speak to many different people who come to the sites already loaded down with existing narratives and expectations. By connecting those narratives to a theme, like The War and Westward Expansion, people who visit Golden Gate, for example, may connect their understanding of western settlement to the Civil War in ways they hadn’t or couldn’t have before. This is the real value of thematic curation: it reveals relationships between events, people, and places that are not apparent when viewed in isolation. The NPS plan has demonstrated the effectiveness of thematic interpretation by listing the relevant parks below each theme: I doubt that people visiting Arkansas Post find relevance there to Golden Gate! Our podcasts can easily make those connections because we are not burdened by physical distance.

    Now my critique: I am bothered by Larsen’s description of building interpretive bridges between NPS resources and individual visitors, regardless of the ideological systems each visitor brings to the park. I don’t think the idea behind this is misguided, no. But I think there must be limits! If a rock formation is 30,000 years old, say so and leave it. What is the point of asking visitors what their religious preferences are? Or asking them to parse out exactly what “kind” of creationist they are? I find this ridiculous! If the fact that a rock is 30,000 years old contradicts the creationist narrative, it is the burden of the creationist to reconcile that information with his/her belief systems.
    Similarly, if all the documents tell us slavery is the cause of the Civil War, I see no point in saying, “But the fact that you think Lincoln was a tyrannical dictator is a good point.” Can someone explain what Larsen is trying to say here?

  4. Amy Platt says:


    Burns’s production gives us two very valuable models for historical interpretation: it recreates the voices and images from the event(s) and it creates the context for those voices and images by calling on historians. The primary source documents Burns scatters throughout the film are evidence, of course, of sequence, landscape, participants, ideology, and so on. They also put people in the center of the narrative–which makes history different from, say, economics or labor studies, and by making people the instigator of events, we are more likely to understand the past. We relate to human experiences better than we do to abstracts like economics or politics.

    Which is not to say that economics and politics shouldn’t be part of the interpretive process, but people must drive those narratives, as well. By focusing on the actual participants and witnesses of the Civil War and its causes, we are less likely to leave entire groups of people out. For example, if we look at the cotton industry in terms of production levels, trade laws, business costs, and so on, we may lose the slaves in the field. But if we are forced to look at the harvesters of the cotton, then the role of slavery becomes apparent. In fact, there is no aspect of the Civil War that is not intertwined with slavery when we use the actors to get at the events and places.

    I don’t think Burns forgets about slavery in his film, nor does he minimize its significance by looking at the sometimes sympathetic lives of the soldiers who fought to preserve it; but Blight makes the excellent point that slavery loses its central place in the final chapter of the film, and that this reshuffling mirrors modern society the further we get away from the war itself, the further we get away from the unimaginable circumstances that turned one half of the country against the other, and the more relieved we are that it is unimaginable today (WW II probably contributed to this reunity of feeling!). For Blight, the focus on reconciliation creates false memory, and films like Burns’s–which contribute to our social memory–have real consequences, primarily that they effectively minimize the social reality of a racially diverse society and force black Americans to adopt the white narrative of postwar reconciliation (even in the face of the KKK, Jim Crow, nationwide segregation in housing and education, and so on). If, as so many of the film’s narrators claim, the Civil War defined us, then leaving out any part of the war, let alone the most significant part, makes that claim empty and unexamined.

    Burns uses many of the usual public history interpretation techniques used by NPS: chronology, emphasis on place, major actors, and emotional connections. All are legitimate and good; but Foner’s advice to place a particular place and/or event both within a larger sequence of events and within the context(s) of the War itself becomes even more urgent when you consider the NPS response. The NPS’s desire to stay out of controversy by sticking to pedantic documentation of events adds a rather sinister element to historical accuracy: is slavery controversial? what does that mean, exactly? Strange. I find it troubling that the government professes to take a neutral stand by obscuring the documented cause of the Civil War–which is, of course, not a neutral stand at all. Burns may fall victim to his desire for a happy ending, but the NPS (in the past) seems to have mistaken memory for recollection (to reference Blight). It needs to separate the two and make both accessible, but distinct, to visitors.

  5. Makenzie Moore says:

    1.) After watching the film and reading the critiques there are a number of things that can help inform our project, many of which have already been talked about. First of all, I agree with previous comments that no matter the project, sacrifices will have to be made in the scope of our product. And with a subject that is as thoroughly dissected and discussed as the civil war these sacrifices are bound to be criticized. Many of those criticisms hold a great deal of merit, even with a project as well thought out and well put together as this documentary. One of the major criticisms of Burns’ film was in his glossing over the racial fallout of the war in favor of I think we have an advantage in the sixteen themes with which we are dealing. The fact that there is a theme completely devoted to Reconstruction seems to acknowledge the fact something significant needs to be said about this often overlooked and uncomfortable part of our past.

    I think one of the things the Burns film does really well is in the telling of the small things. In the big picture of the War, what Lincoln had in his pockets when he died is hardly notable. But I responded to this list of eyeglasses and confederate money as a very humanizing window in to the death a very real man who died a very real death. Other uses of letters, diaries, and photographs also helped make the past three dimensional for viewers. This was very reminiscent of what the NPS does in interpreting sights by linking the tangible to the universal. These tangible objects provided a window to understanding universal themes such as death, grief, and fear among other things.

    One thing that I can take away from both critiques is the importance of context. Positioning a place or event in the story that came before it and what came after is fundamental in uncovering its full historical importance. Also, I like to give people credit when it comes to confronting the past. So long as our work is supported by good, factual, research, we can ask people to consider or reconsider some of the uglier parts of history and their continued effects.

    2.) It seems as though there is no one right way to interpret, but there are an awful lot of ways to do it badly and while it is hard to succinctly say what interpretation is, there is quite a list of what it is not. But I think what I took away from Larson’s article was the need to make our subjects relevant to the historical context and to our lives today. Part of that relevance is found by focusing on the particular subject itself. But it is also found in our attempts to connect these pieces and themes together, or maybe it is better to say, to help people form their own connections between these themes. Something I think this article explains is that it is perfectly alright to present the audience with new ideas or questions, so long as you make them relevant to the subject and the audience by linking the tangible and intangible.

    Holding the high ground does seem to go a long way in addressing some of the problems Foner brings up. There is defiantly an emphasis on telling a more diverse, complex story. But it will be interesting to see what these themes look like off the page and in interpretation.

    3.) I listened to the October 2010 episode on Spiritualism in America. This podcast was probably a little more sensational then others but I thought the hosts maintained a very high level of professionalism. They were able to connect it to broader historical currents such as the women’s rights movement, the Civil War, and even the invention and proliferation of the telegraph. I really appreciated the attempts to balance a critical evaluation of the past with a respect for the people they talked about and the world in which they lived. It is a subject that is really easy to either mock or get defensive about, but the hosts and guest speakers avoided both of these reactions.

    The program used several techniques. They foreshadowed the content of the episode with a brief retelling of a particular story and then provided signposts as the program moved along, noting where we were going with each change of topic. Furthermore, they were able to connect the audience to universal themes of death, mourning, distance, loss, and fear by telling the stories of real people who were connected to and effected by different elements of American spiritualism. Overall, the technical aspects I liked the most were use of guest speakers and voiced sources. Also, I think sound effects and music help make a richer listening experience.

  6. Mary C says:

    I think that the most important lesson that we can take away from both Burns’ production and the readings is that there will be criticism regardless, and that we need to focus on providing accurate, well-rounded and interesting information. Taking a non-confrontational stance may have been the NPS’ policy in the past, but there is value in pushing people with information that may not be popular or easy to hear, but that motivates them to ask questions and find out a little more for themselves.
    As has already been pointed out, Burns’ piece connects with the audience by evoking strong emotions and is underscored by a strong sentimental patriotic theme. The film makes connections through the use of universal themes such as loss, valor, pride, national identity and mourning. He utilizes period images and a haunting soundtrack to evoke these emotions. Both of these techniques, in addition to the inclusion of primary documents may be useful to our podcasts, if we can do so without being gratuitously sentimental.

    It will be important for us to examine why slavery has been ignored in favor of the “States Rights” argument to the civil war. We will have to address this argument as one of the reasons for the war and how this argument really originates with slavery. We will have to find ways to connect our audience to our topics and acknowledge many mixed feelings about the war. It will be important to talk about slavery as a cause of the war in a way that drives people to ask questions about slavery and state rights. We will need to tie individual events together into a larger picture and to show how these events were interpreted differently by people of the period.

    I listened to “Independence Daze: A History of July Fourth”. It details the history of Independence Day and the ways that it’s meaning has changed over time. It appeals to a wide audience and would be easily understood by most people. The topic is relevant because it was originally released for July 4, 2008. It references primary sources and has guest “experts” who utilize personal anecdotes to illustrate points. The speakers use banter and discussion to explore the subject and work through dissenting points of view. The hosts ask questions and explore the answers rather than lecture to the audience, which allows the audience to feel involved. The hosts have a certain cachet because they work in the field of history, but sound, for the most part, like everyday people. They address some of the stereotypes and misunderstandings that have emerged over time and examine where they came from. I particularly like that the webpage contains links to further information for those listeners who want to know more. Many physical presentations at sites lack additional information for those who want to learn more.
    In crafting our own podcasts we may wish to incorporate external links to primary sources, vetted secondary sources, and images, with materials for a variety of ages and reading levels. The podcast I listened to ran almost an hour, which may have been a little long. We might consider offering long episodes in multiple segments.

  7. Melissa Lang says:

    I think telling the story through the personal experiences of ‘regular’ soldiers, or family members of soldiers, or as well of the experience of marginalized communities is a good way to reach an audience fast and emotionally. As historians on this project it seems to me that our project is to engender an interest in the National Parks, foster an interest in history and desire to dig deeper, and to tell the truth, and be conscious of that when we tell one story we are ignoring another.
    On that last note, in regards to Burns’ film, I agree with Blight that the producers made a decision to tell a certain aspect of the Post Civil War era, one where white northerners and southerners sought to reconcile, but while he told this story I think he gave his audience the “happy ending and unfortunately in doing so taught a whole generation of Americans that Reconstruction wasn’t a really big deal.
    Also to pay attention to what Blight said, “The social political or psychological stakes of historical memory can be very high.” (395) I think it is important to be conscious of our desire to interpret the past strictly through the lenses of today, and subconsciously in terms of our own agenda (ie: politics and regionalism). While our own project will likely be matched by similar projects that hopefully unlike us will reiterate traditional as well as modern myths about the Civil War, I strongly believe that it is our ethical duty as historians to not follow in the steps of special interest groups. I really liked what Douglas said that Blight noted, “We are not here to visit upon the children the sins of the fathers, but we are here to remember the causes, the incidents, and the results of the late rebellion.” On the same note I am reminded of what Andrew J. Bacevich once said, “Truth-tellers transcend partisan affiliations.”
    Interpretive techniques in Burn’s documentary that are utilized by the NPS include linking tangible resources with intangible meanings that can be universally understood by most viewers/ visitors. For example Burns’ tangible resources- a place and event –as expressed in Part 9 diary entries about the end of the war, is linked to intangible meanings- one for example is patriotism/ nationalism. This concept is universal because patriotism provides a large amount of relevance to a wide audience, but also will have different meanings to different people therefore allowing viewers/ visitors to come to their own personal interpretation of a soldier and the end of the war. Example in particular: “My shoes are gone, my clothes are gone, I’m weary, I’m sick, and I’m hungry. My family have all been killed or scattered, and I’ve suffered all this for my country. I love my country but if this war is ever over I’ll be damned if I ever love another country” (05:40)
    Another interpretive technique is making connections between places and events. Burns loves to mentions coincidences, or two events that took place at the same location- the same flag that was raised at fort Sumter on the anniversary of the fall of the Fort was the same flag that was taken down at the beginning of the war. Also Lincoln’s casket on the train retraced the route that it had taken four years earlier on its way to Washington. Both of these incidents are not coincident. Both make perfect sense, I believe it is pretty traditional to raise the same flag if it was fallen previously, and Lincoln’s body took the same route because that route is a military protected railway. So the Burns movie didn’t lie, but created a story sort of out of nothing. But I think that these two occasions and others mentioned in the film are good ways to capture the attention of the audience but more importantly to engage the audience personally by attaching their story to a theme. In this case I think that Burns’ film often pushed the theme of the passage of time. Time and time again the documentary would relate one incident, event or diary passage to the theme of time. Time represented often the personal growth one endured during the war, the changing of towns and villages, the growth of the nation as a whole, the longevity of the war and so on.
    Other interpretive techniques that Burns’ film used that are used by the NPS is to identify one’s audience. Burn’s audience is the general public. His film was shown on public television during primetime hours when it first came out. Of course there could have been a Civil War documentary that concentrated on offering more data and delved into historical theories but the general public wouldn’t have been as interested. The Burns’ film brought way some people may consider boring photographs to life through the ‘Ken Burns Effect’, traditional music, sound (ie: birds, bombs) and telling the story of the Civil War primarily through the voices of regular people.
    I agree with Blights criticism that Burns film, especially in terms of the ninth episode, almost completely left out the race issue and therefore perpetuated the myth of that the war was a “family quarrel”. I think it is very important to avoid this. I think in a time when many people consider the fact that an African American was elected president suggests a sort of completion of race issues in our nation makes it a historians responsibility to suggest that that isn’t so and like Barbara J. Feilds concluded that the civil war is still being fought, and unfortunately (or regrettably) that means that it still can be lost.
    I also think that we can learn from NPS’ late ‘90’s approach to historical interpretation at Gettysburg to do the what John A. Latschar claimed the park was planning to do which was to focus more on the “causes and consequences of the Civil War”. By doing this we can promote a single site by revealing to the listeners its relevance to the whole story. I don’t see why the NPS approach should be either or (“site specific” or the greater context). I think a park, or our podcast will be most successful by embracing both.

    • Greg Shine says:

      Great analysis, Melissa!

    • Melissa Lang says:

      In regards to Larsen’s work, ‘Be Relevant or Become a Relic’ (2001) I like what he said: “Interpretation does not provide answers; it poses questions. Interpretation does not teach; it offers opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections. Interpretation does not educate; it provokes increasingly sophisticated appreciation and understanding. Interpretation does not tell people how it is; it reveals personal significance.” I think this here is a really good definition of the difference of what it means to be an academic historian and being steward of a park that belongs to everyone. We can push themes presented by the NPS plan for the sesquicentennial, like introducing or reintroducing broader stories of the Civil War, but its how we tell those stories that I think we need to be careful about.
      Foner’s concerns and critiques are addressed by the NPS Master plan because it involves tying in the larger story of the Civil War with specific sites that may only have been physically related to the war in a very precise way. For example: Under the first theme presented: Causes, relevant parks listed includes: many like Boston, New Bedford, Palo Alto. Slavery did not start in these places or even exist near the brink of the civil war, but they are relevant because they are part of “eight years of sectional tensions – tensions begot at various times and places by debate over economic policies and practices, cultural values, the extent and reach of the Federal Government…”

      Podcast: Grand Old Parties: A History of Partisanship
      Audience: Adults, People interested in connecting modern relevant issues/ events/ patterns with past events and patterns.

      I think that the ‘History Guys’ did have an anthropological approach to the story, they discussed gender issues and human patters and how its almost part of the human condition for people to participate in partisan politics in an almost tribal sort of way, or “boys club” sort of way.
      The profession of the host offers validity of the message and information and interpretation, I think that we could benefit, when appropriate, one of the archeologists on staff, anthropologist and park rangers.

      The hosts utilize interpretive techniques such as attaching a tangible aspect to an intangible theme (ie: Obama speech as an example of partisan rhetoric)

      Well you listed them all I think, I definitely appreciate and would like to emulate the idea of multiple hosts, guests, voiced primary sources (whether reconstructed or recorded in real time)sound effects and music. I liked how the podcast was long, but I thin we should keep in mind our audience (non-history students, but rather people interested in the relevance of a park or the parks to the Civil War. I would prefer something like 15-20 min. then we can explain a site “specific event”, and then bring it into a broader context, thereby showing the listener the value of the park~ which is kinda the ultimate goal right?

  8. Shawn Daley says:

    And on to Question 3

    After having a series of conversations with my father about taxes this past week, I chose the podcast that centered on the History of Taxation. From what the Backstory cast offered, this was intended for a wide berth of listeners, but most notably those who were part of the Tea Party (which was gaining steam when this broadcast in April 2010), those who were curious/apprehensive about the Tea Party, and also those swearing at the IRS as they filled out their tax returns before the April 15 deadline.

    In examining the technical aspects first, I thought that the team utilized a few of the methods that Joffe-Walts suggested, including the creation of a “cast of characters” that I referenced in last week’s post. Listening to this crew reminded me a bit of NPR’s Car Talk, where “Click and Clack” keep the pace moving through their banter. Here, the show centers around a cast with titles like “The 18th Century Guy,” and the comments and jokes they share keep the show feeling informal and engaging. Since “Car Talk” is NPR’s most popular program today, there may be some merit in that format for holding an audience. Beyond that, however, I felt the team was clever with the topic: their first segment, for example involved a spirited dialogue with Patrick Henry, whereby they went to Williamsburg and used the Patrick Henry interpreter to conduct the interview. Later on they would speak to a guest professor from Vassar, who lent her perspective on the issue with regards to gender, and then took a few calls (which I assumed were screened, because the questions were intelligent). Finally, their musical selection added to the flow, as not only did I get an obvious interlude of “Taxman” by the Beatles, but also an instrumental version of “Money” by Pink Floyd.

    I did not think that the profession of the hosts changed the dynamic of the show. In examining that question, Greg, I’m curious if there was something that I would expect them to do to affect the show. Assuming the typical criticism of academics is that they rule from on high, I didn’t feel that they went there. They went out of their way to keep the callers on the phone and even asked if they had helped answer the question. Pedagogically, they were innovative in a way that I have found most academics are not when it comes to topics like this. If they wrote the dialogue with Patrick Henry, that as a teaching tool would be rare to find from academic historians. That ties into what I felt was a clear link to interpretive work, in that they carefully layered their techniques to meet the public. Assuming that Patrick Henry is one of the more prominent Founders when it came to the taxation question, they went to him to hook in people because everyone would have some idea of who he was (and they read the “Give me liberty…” quote in case you were someone who didn’t), and bringing him to life early on in the episode could sustain attention.

    I thought the hosts did a nice job of standing outside the topic, trying to make the information relevant to the listener as the listener saw fit. They never belittled a position, or called into question tax policy at any point in time, even if a caller tried to push them there. Instead, they moved fluidly from their areas of expertise and recounted, energetically, the various approaches to taxation that the country had seen over the course of US history. When I reached the end, I felt that whether you were called for an end to taxation or felt we should be at Swedish levels, you could have gained a substantial amount of firepower from listening to this edition (so it sort of helped me for my ongoing debate with my father, so long as he doesn’t listen to it).

  9. Dianna Woolsey says:

    A bit more in response to how “Holding the High Ground”, Larsen, and Foner tie in here:

    I think the themes in Holding the High Ground and the NPS’ approach to interpretation as represented by Larsen and other readings complement each other nicely. The themes outlined in the High Ground report expand the significance of the NPS’ Civil War sites beyond the traditional tactical military history (as critiqued by Foner) to include causes, consequences, and race and gender related experiences that may well be more confrontational and contested than laundry lists of battle lines — and this seems entirely well-suited to an interpretive approach that emphasizes active emotional engagement and embraces the risk of argument and disagreement. I would almost say that it’s the themes in the High Ground report that help the NPS’ interpretive approach (rather than the other way around as asked in the assignment prompt), in that the themes explicitly include topics that make emotional connection and productive wrangling almost inevitable — if you have an audience of mixed geographic origin and ethnic backgrounds and you begin to discuss the Confederacy’s investment in maintaining slavery or the experience of African-Americans in the Union army, you are almost guaranteed to get a variety of responses reflecting a variety of comfort levels, biases, and assumptions from your audience. That’s good individual meaning, isn’t it?

    As for avoiding the pitfalls of Burns and earlier NPS interpretation, I would think that, with good-faith application of the kind of interpretation described by Larsen, the audience itself would provide a good resource for ensuring that interpretation is more than information and less than misty-eyed nostalgia; a live audience that feels personally relevant and personally addressed by the site and its interpreters seems likely to challenge a lack like Burns’ scanty coverage of the racial consequences of national reconciliation. To put it another way, it takes one person with an interest in the historical African-American experience to raise a hand and ask an interpreter, “Why don’t you talk about the lynching part of all this?” If that person is in an audience that is being treated as intelligent, relevant, and engaged by the interpreter, odds are better that that person will feel comfortable raising that question and making the interpretive experience even more collaborative and productive.

    Holding the High Ground is pretty explicit about addressing the content of Foner’s critique; in its background section it acknowledges the current state of Civil War interpretation as endless and contextless battlefield details at the expense of any explanation of relevance, broader history, or personal experience outside of battlefields. It’s an impressively honest and thoughtful section, I think, since it also admits the need for adjustment to the monolithically-noble vision of the war’s history and how that requires incorporating academic historians’ internal debate and disagreement into a much more complicated and difficult historical narrative to interpret. As far as what the NPS proposes in response to critiques like Foner’s, I think that rather than accept Foner’s accusation that being site-specific leads to lacking broader context, the NPS through Holding the High Ground is arguing that it can retain the site-specific approach *and* use it to illuminate broader context.

    • Shawn Daley says:


      To your last paragraph, do you think that maybe though that NPS should consider the likelihood of how Americans visit Civil War sites in how they offer these themes? I mean, let’s be honest, few Americans are going to go to multiple Civil War sites, and as such, if they are only exposed to the “site specific,” then they are going to be getting only segments of the story, which I think was what Foner was concerned about at Gettysburg. Assuming that I live in Massachusetts, I may never make it down to some of the sites that are specifically tied to slavery themes, and as such, maybe my regional Civil War site should have some aspect of all themes (if I wanted to learn about it) in order to truly serve as the educational resource that Foner is looking for.

      • Dianna Woolsey says:

        That’s a good question. When I look at the list of parks and themes, I don’t know the locations of enough of them to know whether the themes have geographic spread or sort of tend to cluster (e.g. sites that can speak to slavery being limited to the South, sites that can speak to industry and economy being limited to New England, etc). Is it possible the NPS is assuming that over the course of a four-year sesquicentennial, visitors will have the chance to experience a range of sites? If so, that seems optimistic; I can’t say I’ve visited national parks in more than two adjacent states over the last four years.

        It seems like something that we should think about in our project, actually — because a podcast series is something that has the potential to be both site-specific and accessible to people who aren’t remotely near the sites being discussed. When I put it like that, our project starts to look like a much more vital part of turning site-specific information and site-related themes into broader contexts.

  10. Andrew Carlson says:

    In order for us to be successful in the development of our project, we must make sure that we do not gloss over any critical elements that make the Civil War era one of, if not the most, important time in the “creation” of our country. Burn’s production goes into great detail about the most vital events in relation to the Civil War and the aftermath, but fails to go into detail about the struggles and political divide that awaited the nation during the Reconstruction era and leading up to the beginning of the 20th century (As Richard Slotkin writes, “Burns evokes as well as anyone the paradoxical and complex emotion of Civil War nostalgia, in which one recognizes the awful tragedy of the war, yet somehow misses it.”). I believe that how the country “handled” the situation is just as important as what happened prior. His focus on mainly “the white man,” even after mentioning the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, needs to be brought up as well, because obviously they weren’t the only group dramatically effected by the end of the Civil War and the complications that fallowed. But were blacks MORE affected? That’s a point that needs to be addressed.

    There are several representations of the NPS’ Interpretive Process Model at work in Burns’ film. He selects a tangible person in Abraham Lincoln, a tangible event in the Civil War and, more specifically, Lincoln’s assassination and, as the film progresses, the 50th Anniversary of the battle. He identifies universal concepts relating to those, such as struggle, fear, anger, peace, confusion, etc. I believe that he chose a topic so far reaching that it is hard to pinpoint every exact event for a documentary such as this.

    Obviously being a film, it is great to have some sort of visual element when we develop a plan to tell the story of the American Civil War. I would encourage us to allow time for a few podcasts that provide images, even if it is just a slideshow with pictures with a meaningful commentary. We need to also include primary sources, such as letters from soldiers and/or loved ones, and musical elements from the time period in order to draw the audience into the production and get them excited about future podcasts. I know this helps me become more aware of a subject.

    I believe that Eric Foner is correct in stating that Gettysburg NMP needs to find a way to but the Battle of Gettysburg in a historical context and find meaning behind the event, but isn’t that what we have learned about the NPS and their approach to interpretation? I feel that Foner’s views are valid but, as an historian, he would be one to discuss that sort of “flaw.” Would an everyday individual, not in tune with history, be aware or even care about the lack of historical context that was found, at the time, during the presentation on the battle itself? I feel like the NPS is available to provide the “accurate account”, and then let the public find out the “truth” and do more research to find answers to their questions.

    I think we need to start by addressing a valid point from David Larsen’s article: “All interpretation must be built upon accurate and comprehensive information, but if audiences were simply seeking knowledge, most would have little reason to experience the site at all.” If our audience really wanted information about the Civil War and information about the 150th anniversary, they would probably just go look it up in a book, ask a friend, or try to find the most basic information and say that “they know all about it” and dismiss any more information about the subject. We have to ensure that the audience has a reason for listening to these podcasts, whether it be touching on something personal that they can relate to or whether it be one sentencing at the opening of the podcast that draws them in.

    We also need to remember what we’re here to do and, specifically, these points which are discussed in Larsen’s article: “The role of interpretation is to facilitate connections between the meanings of the resource and the interests of the visitor. Interpretation does not provide answers; it poses questions. Interpretation does not teach; it offers opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections. Interpretation does not educate; it provokes increasingly sophisticated appreciation and understanding. Interpretation does not tell people how it is; it reveals personal significance.” These are key to our success.

    I chose the episode “Looking for Work: A History of Unemployment” and the intended audience is those people that are unemployed but, more specifically, those who are actively looking for work, which is the only way “unemployment” is counted… (It’s ridiculous, in my opinion). Of course, I am employed but I am still interested in this subject. So, it could really include anyone, especially those history buffs! The hosts here are providing information about this topic, yet letting the audience determine what they believe is the best description of unemployment and how it should go about being counted accurately.

    I believe that the hosts of these podcasts are well versed in current affairs and understand what is happening in the United States today. By having a educational background, the hosts can take examples from the past and apply them to the issue of unemployment today, which they do. For example, they discuss colonial America and self-sufficient farmers. They explain how mobility was crucial in keeping a job in the colonial period. Was it always called “unemployment” if you were out of work? Probably not. Rather, if you were looking for work, you might call it looking for “competency.” By using these examples, they can then proceed to apply the past to the present.

    Larsen argues that “resource professionals must take an anthropological position of understanding perspectives and diverse meanings, and stand outside of perspectives and meanings in order to communicate and provide opportunities for audiences to make personal, real, and significant connections to the resource.” I believe this is represented in this podcast because the hosts make an effort to help the audience understand how unemployment is being tracked and the historical background of the evolution of unemployment (colonial America, President Roosevelt and the Great Depression, current day unemployment rates, etc).

    I think it is going to be important for us to have more than one voice speaking on the subject and perhaps include a guest speaker or two per podcast. If we do that, however, we have to make sure that the speaker is knowledgeable and can add something to the production that would get the listener’s attention (draw on a personal experience, tell about an unknown event that might affect how we live today, etc.). We should probably keep sound effects out of the production, as they don’t necessarily draw on the time period we are discussing, like music does. Depending on the length of the podcast (which shouldn’t be too long, in my opinion), we’d want to have an “intermission” so the listener can take a break and think about what we are saying.

  11. Doug K-C says:

    The Burns Production

    To be honest, I thought the Burns’ piece would have contained more of the Gettysburg type of mainly military machinations that Foner took issue with. I was surprised by how little of the traditional Civil War military history (turning the right flank and such) Burns put into that specific episode.

    What did strike me was the little attention that slavery received. It did seem to be, as criticized, a “white male” history of the conflict. As Blight mentioned, reconstruction was glossed over, so much so that we can safely say that it was barely acknowledged at all.

    But how to summarize and ‘wrap up” such an event, intended for a disparate, mass market audience? Here was an epic production, with multiple themes and storylines (dare I say, involving many universal concepts?) that needed to have a clean, definite conclusion. Could Burns have been more inclusive, more thorough, and more complex? Sure. But who would he have lost along the way, and was that the intention of the series from the onset? It is a good lesson for our class to consider when making suggestions to podcast themes.

    • Shawn Daley says:

      Doug, could you argue that the best films are ones that leave you walking out of the theater with questions, as opposed to the smile on your face? There is an argument that Burns crafted a great “American” film, but could he have been even more bold in getting Americans to question what they had known instead of giving them further (albeit well filmed) exposition?

      • Doug K-C says:

        I agree with you 100% Shawn. But I think this is still a sticky mess, and that Burns took the easy way out, so to speak. Perhaps easily digestible by the general public is a better way to put it.

        For our project, I personally would vote to have the hard hitting questions, to make people uncomfortable and question all that they have been told. I am still chewing this over in my mind as far as how this can work in the NPS format.

  12. Shawn Daley says:

    To Question 2:
    NPS’ approach to historical interpretation, particularly the second and third strategies that Larsen presents in his article, will be helpful in addressing the themes of the Holding the High Ground plan. I think that one of the areas where we would see the most resistance from our audience is in their belief that we want to completely eliminate a meaning they presently draw from the Civil War. Larsen spoke to this directly in his second strategy, and indicated that while we want to add new perspectives for these individuals, we are not out to “erase” anything they presently hold as truth. In doing this we may prevent ourselves from garnering the type of opposition that Dionne saw in his Op-Ed.
    In tandem with this, however, is the concept of presenting multiple points of view. Larsen’s third strategy, it seeks to foster greater civic discourse about a site’s meaning as well as offer new levels for connection to a site. If I comprehend it correctly, it builds from the second strategy in that by not threatening that visitor’s understood meaning, they will be open to hearing additional perspectives. They may ultimately reject those perspectives, but because of the initial respect offered to them, the hope is that they will reciprocate through possibly entertaining alternate takes, maybe getting them to access the wonder of an “a-ha” moment at the site.
    The themes also help avoid Burns’ fate by having a clear discussion of Reconstruction planned (it being a theme), with multiple sites being tasked with presenting it to the public. Unlike many school curricular plans (and the documentary), it is included with the Civil War Sesquicentennial plan as an “equal” to the other aspects of the war. Overall, though, the inclusion of so many themes with accompanying subthemes challenges staff to utilize a much wider berth of information than what NPS traditionally did in their parks, and thus really allow for the ‘visitor to be sovereign’ through multiple avenues for them to connect to a site.
    I think that Foner’s specific critiques are met partly by the plan for the NPS interpretation. Foner seemed to be calling for some attention to be drawn to the presence of African-Americans (as military support), and this seems to be addressed through the thematic strand of Ethnicity, Race and the Military, as Gettysburg is marked as a site for this strand. Simultaneously, however, Gettysburg isn’t listed as a site with “major resources” for the discussion of causation, which was something that Foner directly states. Considering that Gettysburg may be the most popular site for the Civil War, it seemed that even if it wasn’t home to “major resources,” NPS would want to tack it on to the list of places to have that information to get the information out.

  13. Melissa Swank says:

    Part 2.

    In the last paragraph for my post on Part 1, I reiterated my beliefs so far as interpreting the Civil War in our podcast, so I won’t bore you with monotony. On the grounds of “avoiding pitfalls,” from all of our readings, plus my own personal conviction of what it means to be an historian, Larsen describes in witty terms the failures that can be the result of poor interpretation, or rather misinterpretation. Interpredata, Interpretainment, Interpreganda, Interpreciation are the terms he uses to describe interpretation that falls below the par line. “One of the problems with interpretation so far has been that there have been too many interpretations of interpretation.”

    Of the short-fallings of interpretation, the author concludes, “interpredata fails to help the audience make personal connections to the resource… Interpretainment warps the concept and fails to connect the visitor to the resource… [And] the primary goal of interpreganda is to convince the audience of the singular validity of a particular ideological or agency perspective.” Rather than falling into these pitfalls of interpretation, “What is essential to understand here is that tangible resources have little value for an audience or potential constituency without their context of intangible meanings. Further, those meanings derive, for the audience, a specific power and relevance because of their association with the tangible thing. Tangible and intangible resources require a connection or link to one another.” We need to help them associate meaning out of the tangible to the greater intangible concepts.

    The true meaning of interpretation, however, he sums up, “By linking tangible resources to their intangible meanings, interpretation helps audiences both care about and encourages them to care for resources.” Caring is the key. How do we get our audience to care? The visitor is sovereign. We must meet them on their ground, where they are. Realizing that our audience will come from a vast array of backgrounds, ethnicities, and educational understandings, we must find a way of making the podcasts digestible to all. “The role of interpretation is to facilitate connections between the meanings of the resource and the interests of the visitor. Interpretation does not provide answers; it poses questions. Interpretation does not teach; it offers opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections. Interpretation does not educate; it provokes increasingly sophisticated appreciation and understanding. Interpretation does not tell people how it is; it reveals personal significance.” As I read this paragraph, I was radically floored. These are BIG shoes to fill! And I can honestly say that I am still juggling these thoughts in my mind and deciding how to be an historian and an interpreter in the terms of the NPS at the same time. Maybe Greg can enlighten us. Maybe I’m just confused, but the two seem mutually exclusive based on this article. Obviously the historian recognizes their limitations and personal biases, but how do we not provide answers? How do we not educate? How do we not tell it how it is? To me, this seems more misleading than anything else. This is no simple task set before us. I still do not think we tiptoe around the larger issues.

    Then comes the issue of history and heritage for the public historian. Where is the balance? I have been contemplating this issue as well. What does heritage mean to the historian. Where do we blur and where do we separate the two? “The profession of interpretation has a much more practical mission: to provide for both the protection and enjoyment of resources that connect us to our heritage—and perhaps for our very survival.” To Larsen, it seems to me that heritage trumps history? But how so? Let’s think about these things.

    Larsen gives some practical advice for good interpretation:
    Know more about our audiences.
    Never replace an existing meaning or perspective with a new one.
    Present multiple points of view.
    Know when a situation is interpretive and when it is not.
    Recognize that resource management and interpretation have a great deal in common.

    My fear, and forgive me if I am wrong, is that that we are heading in a sociological direction rather than a historical one.

    • Greg Shine says:

      Melissa, you bring up provocative points, and I’m curious about the perspectives of the rest of the class. I think that Larsen is seeking to carve out a definitive niche for “interpretation” and recognize it as something separate from the concepts of “information” and “education” in this context. If it’s teaching, it’s education, not interpretation. If it is primarily providing data, then it is information. I think that an effective podcast plan will weave elements of information and education into a largely interpretive product. I don’t see it as being 100% pure interpretation, for example.

      There certainly is a more abstract, almost Zen-like philosophy that underlies historical interpretation, and it can be challenging to grasp (it still is for me). As I see it, our job in historical interpretation is to provide accurate information and context to help folks craft their own understanding of the value of a place — while maintaining the sovereignty of individual meaning and connection. Does this help?

      The last time I taught this class, we had a lively discussion about the differences between the role of the academic historian and the public historian, and no doubt we shall soon be doing the same tomorrow!

      That being said, I’ll toss out this thought provocatively and ask you all to comment on its validity:

      In the traditional practice of academic history, students are taught to weigh evidence and source material toward crafting a specific argument that takes a specific stance — perhaps creating a “truth.” In public history’s sub-discipline of historical interpretation (or at least Larsen’s definition of it in the reading above) this approach is considered “interpreganda” and falls short of fully connecting people to places, primarily because it fails to “convince the audience of the singular validity of a particular ideological or agency perspective.” Both academic and public history value accuracy, but historical interpretation recognizes value in individual — and multiple — truths. The products of academic historians seek to “tell” while those of historical interpreters seek to “show.”

      Discuss! 😉

      • Shawn Daley says:

        There is a point Greg, where I almost would like to “see” good interpretation done via Larsen’s standards with a live individual (as opposed to the fictional dialogue at the Mather center). To an extent, I feel that Larsen is working too abstractly, and maybe that’s just me, but I feel that allowing the visitor to be “sovereign” (and that’s a pretty loaded word) may be giving them just too much authority (which is what, and correct me if I’m wrong) seems so troubling to Melissa and others approaching the interpretative process. In opting then to give them this type of power, in pursuit of making them care about a site, do we do a disservice to historical record by not interpreting in such a way that reins in their sovereignty?

        For me, I’m trying to imagine the slavery discussion happening with an interpreter and someone who believes that “slavery was good for civilizing African Americans.” That’s an extreme example, but does the interpreter allow that kind of thought to stand on its own, because the visitor has control over their thoughts? I guess as an educator, that’s challenging for me to accept because even though I want people to have the ability to think for themselves, and tried to emulate that in my classroom, there were just times where a kid/parent/etc. was going to have such a misguided view of historical record that you felt compelled to correct them.

        That isn’t to say I don’t see where Larsen is trying to go, and in some cases (what questions someone chooses while visiting Ford’s theater or which parts of the tour are important at Fort Simcoe), I think it’s valid. But on this topic, the Civil War, it seems like all that has been done is interpretation and allowing those “multiple” truths to exist fosters an atmosphere where our nation does not fully come to grips with its issues. If historians don’t have a responsibility for bringing these issues to the forefront so that they can be resolved, don’t we contribute to a nation unable to reconcile its rifts?

      • Greg Shine says:

        Thanks for your insight. This is exactly the thinking and evaluation process that I want our discussions to stimulate. What think the rest of you?

        Shawn, perhaps you and your fellow classmates feel strongly enough about the issue to make a conscious choice to depart from Larsen’s model. That’s okay! Look back at the goals articulated in Holding the High Ground. What is the best method of achievement? You might be able to make the argument, for example, that its strong, active direction warrants adoption of a less pure, more adapted model of historical interpretation.

        Again, the idea with the readings is to help you all understand how a public history organization — in this case, the NPS — helps craft public programs, contacts, and publications. These are the tools in our collective tool chest. If you choose to employ a Phillips-head screw instead of a flat-head screw, I’m okay with us doing that as long as we can articulate why we’re doing it and how it helps meet the goal. (And we use a screwdriver. Now, if you were to whip out a sledgehammer or ball peen hammer instead, we’d need to reevaluate.)

      • Melissa Swank says:

        I’m thinking beyond the historical “interpretation” aspect, maybe this is an issue of history versus heritage? Heritage will be different for everyone, whereas, in my opinion, there maybe different approaches to interpreting history, but they are by no means equal. There are best practices and I’m confident that the historian, academic and public alike, would come to similar conclusions. Still contemplating this issue, thinking through some things, will write more later.


      • travelang says:

        I think that there is certainly a responsibility of a historian to correct out right untruths ~That slavery was positive for African Americans. I’m thinking bigger when I say that we need to careful of the narrative that we carve out. For example the causes of the Civil War are debatable because there are many, are they all “wrapped up” in slavery? Yes. I think that is a completly ethical statement for a historian to make (that is where our sculpting of the narrative comes in) but this must be done without an agenda of northern/ liberal west coasters. Based on the discussion we had in class last session I was extremely weary of the fact how easy it was for many to laugh at southerners and point fingers. Like Fredrick Douglas said: “we are not here to visit upon the children the sins of their fathers, but…to remember the causes, the incidents, and the results of the late rebellion.” I think I may have already posted it but this is important.
        (BTW can we identify which Melissa we are responding to?)

  14. Shawn Daley says:

    To Question 1:
    When I watched the end of Burns’ series, I was torn on whether I completely agreed with Blight’s criticism. In the last segments before the clips of the “Reunion” at Gettysburg, we were given an opportunity to hear from Columbia University historian Barbara Fields, who is known for her writings on American slavery, and who gets some time to state that life for African-Americans after the war was not easy, and they would have to wait a century before they saw civil rights. Having listened to her, I thought one could argue that Burns did address the slavery issue, and that maybe Blight was unfair if he expected Burns to follow through with a full discussion of the perils of Reconstruction.
    However, I can see where Blight has merit, in that compared to the segment on the “Reunion,” Fields’ comments get less air time than the final arc that Burns concludes with. Where I think Burns erred was that while he was not inaccurate, his focus on the “transcendental” experience of the Reunion made for a good film ending as opposed to good history. He could have ended with Fields’ comments, coming full circle to the first episode (which details all the issues with slavery), and making a profound statement how the bloodshed was arguably meaningless based on the war’s original purpose. In his article, Blight offers what I thought was an incisive comment about the film by Richard Slotkin — “Burns evokes as well as anyone the paradoxical and complex emotion of Civil War nostalgia, in which one recognizes the awful tragedy of the war, yet somehow misses it.”
    In reading Blight, and reflecting on how popular the series was back in the 90s, I feel that Burns missed a golden opportunity. Here he had the American population drawn into his, as Blight called it “artistically brilliant and haunting film,” and instead of pushing that audience to go beyond their popular conception of the war, he fed right into it by closing as he did.
    What this tells me is that if we value Blight’s (and Foner’s) statements, our podcast plan has to be more willing to directly wrangle with issues from the Civil War story than even Burns was willing to. What we can learn from the Burns production and the critiques is that it is not simply our job to offer tales that “end well,” but to recount events that could lead people to question historical memory. We have to be fearless enough to approach topics (like Reconstruction) that are avoided because of their “mess,” and find a way to translate them to the public. Even if the public rejects our entreaties, it is our responsibility (as I believe Foner implores) to at least present them as part of the context, and not bypass them because they weren’t part of a visitor’s planned itinerary.
    That isn’t to say that we can’t offer a few heartwarming anecdotes. We cannot forget the “romance” associated with this conflict, whether it was generated by the Lost Cause movement or through media today, and we have to search out hooks that tie to those intangibles and universal themes and attract such a strong following. Burns did hit that emotional nerve, and people ate it up (in record numbers for PBS), and I do think we should borrow from his model.
    What I did notice from the episode that I felt was in line with the NPS interpretative techniques was that at times Burns let the audience draw the connections as opposed to spelling everything out. In the litany of “where are they now” characters (between Fields and the Reunion), the film didn’t vocally editorialize. Here I found making mental notes about specific people as the list proceeded. When Alexander Stephens was quickly allowed back to Congress, for example, I found myself a little disgusted with how easy he got off before being welcomed back to Congress. Another viewer may not have had an additional thought, or have smiled admiring how forgiving a nation we were. Either way, Burns allowed us that opportunity, to skip or latch on as we saw fit as he flipped through the characters.

  15. Melissa Swank says:

    Part 1: Ken Burns’ series The Civil War, Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature;

    The visual element of documentaries, I feel, cannot be matched by a podcast. However, the incorporation of primary source documents, in the form of letters and proclamations can be met in verbal form. Sound effects, apart from the visuals, can be used intensely to bring our audience to a moment of emotional connect, such as is so important to the interpretation of the NPS. While I understand that the “emotional connection” is an important component for the public to making meaning out of their experience, I do not think our primary purpose in our podcast, or in any history for that matter, should be providing an emotional experience. Emotions are easily manipulated, and the manipulation is not the purpose of history. Writing and presenting history is not manipulative. It is our job to practice good, thorough, accurate history by use of our sources. The presentation of our sources may or may not lead to an emotional experience. However, I feel that when good historical methodology is practiced, there will be an emotional connect.

    David W. Blight’s article “’What Will Peace among the Whites Bring?’: Reunion and Race in the Struggle over the Memory of the Civil War in American Culture” addresses the issues of meaning and memory, versus nostalgia and myth-making. According to Blight, Burns did not pay enough attention to the reconstruction period post-war. “Along the way, the narrative is punctuated by Shelby Foote informing us that the war ‘made us an is’ (a reference to how the United States ‘is’ rather than ‘was’ became a common expression), and Barbara Fields reminding us of William Faulkner’s claim that history is ‘not a was but an is.’ The film did leave us with a sense that the past and the present inform, and even flow into one another” (394). Blight describes Burns’ film as the history that the public enjoys hearing – the history that emphasizes progress, success, unity. A feel-good, watered-down, fast-forward version of the the reality that actually occurred for purposes beyond the history in itself.

    In Burns defense, I feel that it can be nearly impossible to capture history in such a short period. I, no matter how much I limit the scope of my projects, always find that I’m forced to leave something pertinent out. You see, to me it’s all important, however to the audience and use to the progress of my thesis or purpose, there are certain things that must, regrettably, be excluded. This follows the NPS guidelines for meaningful interpretation in that it is necessary to begin with our purpose. The purpose of our podcast will lead to our content and the goals/arguments we seek to meet.

    Blight also describes the historical memory and ever-changing contexts – historiographically and mythologically – that are present in our American audiences. “The war was remembered as primarily a tragedy that led to greater unity and national cohesion, and as a soldier’s call to sacrifice in order to save a troubled, but essentially good Union, not as the terrifying crisis of a nation deeply divided over slavery, race, competing definitions of labor, liberty, political economy, and the future of the West (some of these issues were hardly resolved in 1913)” (403). As times change and the public continues to hold on the myths we’ve told ourselves, certain aspects of the past continue to be perpetuated and others forgotten or minimized. Historians can come along side the public and gently correct misconceptions about the past. Without leaving anything out or minimizing our past, we have a role in informing the public of areas of misconception or areas of ignorance.

    Blight addresses the issue of how not to commemorate an event: “Commemorative rituals can inspire decidedly different interpretations; sometimes it depends simply on whether one is on the creating or the receiving end of historical memory. Sometimes it depends simply on whether a construction of social memory is to be used to sustain the social order, or to critique and dislodge it… Peace among the whites brought segregation and the necessity of later reckonings. The Civil War has not yet been disengaged from a mythological social memory; but likewise, the American reunion cannot be disengaged from the black experience and the question of race in American memory” (405-406). We can commemorate the Civil War in a way that is meaningful without trying to satisfy every visitor. Not everyone will be happy with an accurate depiction of the war, however if done well, every visitor will learn something about our national history and identity that will leave a meaningful impression.

    Eric Foner’s letter “Changing Interpretation at Gettysburg NMP” – argues for the need for historical context in site-specific interpretations. “Too often, I believe, the NPS adheres with excessive rigidity to the principle that its presentations of history must be ‘site-specific’—that is, that events at the site itself must be emphasized rather than broad historical forces originating elsewhere… Indeed, over the years, Gettysburg has become less a shrine to the Civil War than a memorial to (white) reunion—a situation sealed by the commemoration held in 1913 on the battle’s 50th anniversary, which formed the emotional centerpiece of the final episode of Ken Burns’ celebrated television series.” The NPS’ approach to being “non-controversial” needs to end. History is history. Events, places, and people are all pieces to the larger picture that must be put together accurately for clarity and true meaning. It wouldn’t make much sense taking one piece of a jigsaw puzzle and trying to conclude what the larger picture looked like. Likewise, we cannot take the pieces of the puzzle and put them together any way we’d like. All that we’d see then is a smorgasbord of random chaos with no cohesive bonds. To give an accurate, historical account of the Civil War, in my opinion, we cannot sidestep the big issues. We must take our sources, primary and highly regarded secondary sources alike, and create a coherent picture without being fearful of being offensive to the public. I highly disagree that the Civil War “is” – It “was” and remembering that the history is past and we can learn lessons and make meaning from our past is important in this instance. As historians, it is not our job to make history ACCEPTABLE to the public, however as public historians it IS our job to make accurate and thorough history DIGESTABLE to our audience, but not at the sake of best practice.

    • Shawn Daley says:

      Just to play devil’s advocate, since I generally agree with you, let me see if I can defend NPS. NPS, as a federally-funded program (as opposed to a privately-funded university or a state university built, even tenuously, on academic freedom), is there a wisdom in being cautious — of being accurate while not correcting the visitor? Look at NPR, for example, which most international observers would say is fairly ‘objective’ but both sides (liberal and conservative) descry as being biased. Because of that perception of being “biased,” NPR is repeatedly having to fight back the government officials hell bent on hacking its funding. Is NPS being true to its original purposes then, by trying to stay “neutral,” knowing that it needs to be in the good graces of the many in order to sustain its sites and resources? Even in the first video we saw, it was stated that a primary concern of NPS was to be “economically viable” to protect the resources. As such, is that a fair “deal with the devil” to make, since in so doing they preserve these resources that can be used by academic historians and others to state the proper case for historical record? Does NPS have to “lead the fight,” in correcting perspectives?

      • Melissa Swank says:

        Shawn – Very true. Since NPS is an agency of the government in the realm of public history, there are certain expectations that will be imposed. No matter where the funding arises from, whoever is dishing out the money will have certain expectations that they seek to have met. I’m not even saying that there is room for change within NPS, I just feel that “interpretation” as we have been discussing it teeters on the line of history and I am not convinced that it falls in the category of traditional history, or even public history as I have it envisioned.

  16. Brandon Quintel says:

    As has been said before, and not to rehash what has been said quite nicely is that we can learn how Ken Burns uses personal hooks and cues to make that connection to the audience which then engages you into the plot line and really makes it become more human instead of just someones story about a series of events, or even more frequent, just the story of that singular battle at the singular moment in time. Its a very effective thing; as was said as well is that it adds a face and a voice to the people who where the subjects of the film. Again, makes it more human. These same techniques were being showed in the training video that we watched in where they ranger was beginning to develop her own skills in terms of making connections to the audience and learning how to use interpretation to again make it more human to make sense of the stories and to draw in the public. I dont think there is a single aspect of Burns’ film that we cannot use in our project, but i would say that we dont want to get into a situation in which the emotion or humanistic qualities overshadow the underlying theme of the historical aspect of the park. As an example, we need to try not to let the story stray from historical ‘fact’ in exchange for a more colorful and emotional connection just in hopes to draw in the public for that few min.

    As far as using what we have discusses thus far by avoiding the pitfalls of Burns and the NPS’s past interpretations, i think this has already been addressed in the previous statements. One is again to not soley focus on the one overarching theme of the park and gloss over other ‘smaller’ aspects. IE when the article mentions the disappointment at Gettysburg and only mentioning the battle and leaving out slaves and the other contributing factors of the battle, so we need to focus on the entire aspect of the park and not just what is the most exciting or ‘relevant’ and leave everything else out. The second, again is to not make it a colorful story to gain people’s emotions to the story in exchange for leaving out actual facts in order to make it a better more connectful story. Im not sure how to comment fully on the critiques and how the NPS is dealing with them better now than in ’99, but what i can say from the classes and readings, is that the goal is to get better and to take different approach to how the park service deals with the sesquicentennial. So in that way, its a step in the right direction.

    I listened to the Beyond Numbers: A History of the U.S Census episode and to me it sounded like the audience was people like us, not the general public. That may be short sided but even in the beginning he states that the U.S. Census makes mistakes and not only admits it, but also reports effectively and accurately how much they are off by. I believe most people just take the census numbers and uses them as fact and doest much think about them or judge it, since either its an official number from the govt.. or because people dont really have a real care to know exactly the population. Its geared more towards people like us who want to interpret the numbers and to think about how the numbers where gathered and if it really makes sense. The profession of the hosts certainly does give them a little more credence to what they are saying since they have more of a background in dealing with things like this, but overall, i think it would be just as credible coming from someone else who put intelligent thought behind their results. I think we need to consider multiple hosts, length and quality of both the sound and content. The podcasts i regularly come back to have these qualities. Multiple people for perspective and not just a single voice, a length that is easy to deal with and the sound has to be good so it isn’t painful or fatiguing to listen to.

  17. Melissa Lang says:

    I’m not entirely convinced that visitors can’t handle the harsh reality of the institution of slavery and the violence that occurred before, during and after the Civil War. Especially in the podcast form I think that we can, bring harsh realities and contextual pieces to the forefront. I think that the only area a park should censor the reality of a historic event should be from small children (ie pictures of violence), but I think in the form of a podcast we can safely assume that only adults and adolescents will be listening in. In which case I think we would be selling the public short by assuming they can’t handle the harsh realities that surround the issue of the Civil War. And, like you said, I hope that we do.

  18. Doug K-C says:

    Foner’s disagreements with Gettysburg is that the site is too self contained, in a sense; in a bubble, and without context. As even he points out in his letter, to a degree, this is understandable, and even expected. To a family driving by the site, curious to visit, almost on a whim, this site specific focus may be enough. To a Civil War enthusiast, Foner’s criticism of “maneuvers of armies” may be just the ticket.

    But context gives the place a larger meaning. Without context, I even wonder if historical study means anything. Even worse, as Foner states, is the site’s contributing to the perpetuation of “a series of misconceptions about the Civil War,” meaning, of course, slavery and the inherent issues of race.

    The Larsen article draws attention to the issue in describing “interpretainment,’ meaning drawing a pleasant visitor into the site, and in a Disneyesque formula, have them leave with a happy feeling of the resource. There is no controversy, no uneasy feeling, certainly no slave shackles.

    The article points out that the “sovereignty of the visitor” but stresses that the “customer is not always right.” This is an admirable value to present when contemplating historical site interpretation, but is an offended customer one who then argues for continued federal funding of such site? When push comes to shove, is ts the NPS willing to possibly offend some of its more conservative, dare I say “revisionist” resource visitors? Or is Foner’s impression of the interpretation at Gettysburg a safer path to follow?

    The author(s) go on to suggest that through proper interpretation, old (incorrect) visitor assumptions are not corrected (let’s say “The Civil War was about State’s Rights”), but rather new to the visitor (correct) interpretations are introduced (“The Civil War was all wrapped up in Slavery”). This seems logical, and the proper way to conduct interpretation. It also seems, especially when dealing with universal concepts such as race and secession, uncomfortable and inviting to polarization.

    My belief is that the authors of the “Holding the High Ground” plan want these realities and contextual pieces brought to the forefront in our current program of podcasts. My hope is that we do so. My fear is that the NPS will decide that it is too controversial, too real, and in general, may contribute to a non-“pleasant visitor experience.” Considering our current political environment, this may be the safest path to follow. To be fair to this point of view, federally contracted sno-cone vending on a hot summer Pennsylvania day does sound delightful…

  19. Doug K-C says:

    Question (Exercise?) 3 – The Podcast

    The Backstory podcast episode I chose to listen to was “Paying up: a history of taxation” from April of 2010. The intended audience, as I could tell, was the average American interested in our history. It was not really a production that was designed to be on one side of the political system or the other – in fact, they handled the “anti-government, anti-taxes” argument fairly respectfully, I felt. It was certainly produced with a generalist audience in mind.

    The hosts utilized a “living history” actor who portrayed Patrick Henry in colonial Williamsburg, arguing against the yoke of British taxation, providing a tangible resource. Examples in the podcast were also given of a tax on gasoline, providing funding for roads and bridges; yet another tangible resource that most drivers can relate to. It is my belief that taxation is a universal concept, for truly most citizens of nations on our planet can relate to this concept with a “first person” experience.

    In my opinion, the hosts we not “too academic” in their portrayal of the issues, the context, or the topic. They explained the concepts and the history behind taxation and tariffs without using too many complicated “isms” that just our peers would understand. But on the flip side, they did not approach the script assuming that the audience was a bunch of know nothing dim-wits. They had the right mix of presentation and respect for the audience. It was an absolutely complex topic that was not dumbed down or glossed over.

    I felt that the podcast narrators did a decent job of making “real and significant connections to the resource” (in this case, knowledge of the background on taxation). It helps that nearly everyone has a committed connection to the topic, so one would assume, at least a passing interest in the subject. If the topic had been, oh say, trade deficits with developing nations, I assume a “connection to the resource” would be tenuous, and this, a smaller, more informed target audience.

    The podcast had theme music, which certainly helps. Acting talent was employed, as were call in questions from listeners. Listeners’ questions were treated with respect. Having several broadcasters in an almost conversational format was a plus, and provided for a more active listening setting. There was a joking, almost jocular theme to the broadcasters, making a heavy, possibly boring topic a little more palatable. All in all, I must say, rock solid.

  20. Dianna Woolsey says:

    I listened to the Thanksgiving episode, which discussed early instances of Thanksgiving dinners and the meanings ascribed to them as well as the history of Thanksgiving football. Because they started with the football part, I had a few minutes of feeling like I wasn’t the intended audience because I don’t watch football or know much about the teams… but then I realized that it was interesting anyway, because they talked about football games on Thanksgiving in person and on television in ways that were fun whether you cared about the game or cared about the combination of masculinity and domesticity.

    The hosts definitely used some of the techniques described by Chana Joffe-Walt, like foreshadowing — at the beginning of the program and before every break they dangle a few tantalizing facts in front of the listener to provoke curiosity — and signposts explaining where they’re turning now in their attempt to find the origin of Thanksgiving. They also use some techniques described by Larsen, such as respecting the listener’s existing meanings and knowledge — particularly since their callers repeatedly turn out to have specific agendas and forms of knowledge on the subject about which they’re asking — and allowing multiple perspectives among themselves, their callers, and the experts they consult over the course of the hour.

    I could see the profession of the hosts making the message seem sort of overbearing and authoritative — they’re historians, they must have the absolute facts — except that the format of the show seems designed to minimize that effect. They run the discussion as a conversation among equals whether they’re talking to each other, their callers, or their designated experts. They muse out loud, interrupt each other, joke around, compliment their guests’ knowledge, and welcome new information, and the result is a program that gives a lot of information that listeners may or may not know, without in any way sounding like an academic lecture. They certainly hit Larsen’s mark of not taking sides among competing perspectives, and allowing the listeners (and the callers) to take opportunities for connection as they choose. With three of them speaking, no one meaning emerges as “the right answer” for listeners to absorb; I felt like I had a choice in connecting to the Civil-War-era magazine editor’s campaign for a unifying national holiday, the day of heartfelt relief in Virginia for missing the invasion of tobacco caterpillars, the frequent and unscheduled Puritan days of humility, or even the caller speaking from the Butterball turkey advice call center. None of the hosts tried to tell me to choose one over another, which made all of the opportunities for connection seem more appealing.

    Technical aspects that I thought worked especially well were the themed musical intermissions (in this case, songs with a homey feel and lyrics referencing family-holiday themes like home cooking), the multiple-hosts format, and the occasional guest or voiced primary document to break up the interaction of the three main narrators. I think the length they’ve chosen is maybe a bit long — I paused the podcast in the middle and took a break because my attention was wandering — perhaps we can aim for something between half an hour and forty-five minutes?

  21. Dianna Woolsey says:

    Part 1 first:

    I think what we can learn from Burns’ work and its critiques is two-part: that which is successful in holding audiences for almost ten hours of yet more information about a 150-year-old event that we’ve all heard about ad nauseum, and that which is drawing such huge criticism. The challenging thing is that some of them are the same elements: the pathos, the sensational language, the strong emotional cues in pictures and music, the dangling hooks in section subtitles that aren’t quite comprehensible until later (like “Useless, Useless”), the unrepentant sentimentality. Some of it resembles Tilden Freeman’s and the NPS’s advice on interpretation: provoking the audience,drawing upon universal themes like death and suffering and reconciliation. Burns’ extensive use of footage of aged veterans shaking hands across the Gettysburg battlefield, and the morbid details of the deaths of Booth’s conspirators, are such strong appeals to emotion that they verge on being corny… but so does Robert Fudge’s advice on how to tell the story of the Declaration of Independence as a potential death warrant for its signers.

    The Blight article points out something that seems useful for our project: that even if your project is interesting and popular, you can still be taken to task for cooperating in the sanitizing or forgetting of a piece of the story, especially if people consider it important in the after-effects of the story that you’re telling. In this case, the piece that’s left out could definitely have been made into a satisfying and interesting part of the story. Burns clearly felt the reunion footage was a satisfying emotional note on which to end the documentary, and I don’t disagree, but Blight managed to flesh out the story of the postwar backslide in race relations and the ironic backdrop that it presented to the pageant of peace and reconciliation, and I think he did so without detracting from the power or pathos of the reunion footage.

    I found the response to Foner’s letter useful to think about. The candid answer that avoiding cause and context is a way of remaining non-confrontational is maybe a useful warning: you can avoid confrontation with alternate stories and meanings by focusing on uncontested facts, but your interpretation will be flat and fail to leave the visitor with the understanding and appreciation you’re hoping for. I’d like to think that Blight’s approach can help here, even though his article is academic critique and not aimed at a general visiting audience; he acknowledges the surface story that makes such a satisfying piece of documentary, recognizes what it does as public rhetoric and what purpose it was serving in its historic context, and brings out the equally-interesting story of what else was going on in opposition to that surface rhetoric. Can we do that?

    • Greg Shine says:

      A very cogent analysis, Dianna. I agree that there are some specifics from Blight’s academic critique that could benefit a general visiting audience such as ours. I think that I’d slightly rephrase your final question to “How can we do that?” and seek to flesh out a road map from the three main tenets you’ve culled: 1) acknowledge the appeal of the surface story, 2) recognize the public impact, purpose, & historical context of the surface story, and 3) help the “opposition to that surface rhetoric” emerge.

      So, class, how can we do that? How can we adeptly weave these and other threads toward a goal of helping visitors come to their own, personal understanding of these significant (and complex) sites and histories?

      • Melissa Lang says:

        I think that in terms of the podcast we can help listeners come to their own personal understanding my making more of a discussion between two or three people instead of a lecture performed by a single voice. For example in the podcast I posted last week, there are two hosts that explore a single topic sometimes bringing in two different interpretations of an event. Yet, as Blight suggests, “dichotomies have always blurred more truth than they have revealed.” Which, I think the more we can reveal how complicated the issue was and is, the more we can foster understanding vs. intoleration.

      • Shawn Daley says:

        I think part of our task is not to shy away from argumentation. So many people in the United States prefer the route of least resistance, where everyone is “peaceful.” However, I think that this belies a distaste for how argumentation is carried out nowadays as opposed to what argumentation is meant to be. Elements of ancient Greek society saw that argumentation, when carried out as a civil, academic exercise, brought out greater “truth.” The problem today is that we are so far removed from that model that “argue” is rarely given positive connotations.
        The podcast format that Melissa is talking about may be something that allows us to tackle those more difficult questions, if we can carve a dialogue/debate/argument that takes those competing narratives and actually maneuvers through them in such away that doesn’t devolve into the bickering that modern adversarial (i.e. lawyers) argumentation fosters. Not to say that every podcast should take this form, but if we are true to the Holding the High Ground document, and choose to tackle some of the more controversial areas, this could be our means to give voices to all sides AND arrive at a more complete picture than is presently understood today.

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