Teaching history is about the same as walking a tightrope. There are some subjects that are considered boring to many and the teacher who is presenting it may talk about it as if the content is dry, the passion is gone and it feels like a chore just to talk about it. For such topics, if one cannot find a creative way to at least entertain the audience and make it interesting, the teacher will be tossed off the tightrope and into a pool of boos and hisses.
Then there are subjects that teachers present that are very interesting and is taught in such a way that it brings the audience to their feet. Most of the time, by looking at one aspect that we don’t talk about on a regular basis, and by telling a story about it in a creative way, it will build an audience that will ask for more stories like that. It’s like telling a bedtime story with something that we’ve never heard of before but it is interesting to listen to.
This is where Professor Greg Jackson comes in. A professor of history at Utah Valley University, Mr. Jackson created such a set of bedtime stories about the history of the United States and focusing on the aspects we don’t talk about much, in the podcast “History That Doesn’t Suck” (HTDS). This bi-weekly podcast looks at certain areas of history and focusing on one topic of interest, turns it into an one-hour show which shed some light and some thought on how things happened the way they did. We have one example worth showing you in the Transcontinental Railroad (the first of a three-part series), which you can click on below:
From my own personal point of view, listening to HTDS takes you away from the stresses of teaching life, counting the daily commutes and traffic jams, into the unknown, where you just have one story teller who takes you on a tour of the past. It’s a perfect escape but you have the opportunity to take a bit of knowledge with you and this speaking from a historian’s point of view.
I had a chance to interview Prof. Jackson about his podcast on the Brooklyn Bridge and the family that built the first structure over the East River in New York City in the Roebling Family. I had a lot of questions for him about his podcast and the bridge, especially because his work landed him with the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards Winner in the Category Bridge Media and Genre. Therefore, I’ve decided to divide this interview up into two parts. Today we will focus on HTDS itself, while tomorrow we will get to the meat of the subject, which is the bridge that helped pave the way for the development of America’s infrastructure, which we know today.
And so, without further ado, here is the interview. Enjoy! 🙂
Questions about History that Doesn‘t Suck (HTDS) in General:
1. How long have you hosted the podcast HTDS?
4.5 years. It will be 5 years this October.
2. What was the concept behind HTDS? And in simpler terms, why the title?
To explain the concept behind HTDS I think I have to first point out that I’m a university professor. My professional life is dedicated to the study and teaching of history. To that end, I wanted to create an engaging, entertaining, yet academicallyrigorous way for Americans of all walks of life to be able to learn their history; the stuff that we should pick up in K-12 or general ed courses in college (and very well may have but could now use a refresher). So that’s what I set out to do. HTDS is designed to be––and I think and hope it is––rigorous as a dull textbook yet entertaining enough that you come to it for fun. That’s the sweet spot I’m going for.
Ah, the name! I went with “History That Doesn’t Suck” because even though I love history and do not believe it sucks at all, I know that, for many, formal education can suck the joy out of learning. I’m trying to conveying to that specific listener, to the person who thinks history is boring, that I get what their experience has been, but that it doesn’t have to be that way. History isn’t just names and dates. It’s real people and their stories. And with this podcast, you’ll get the latter.
3. Who’s your general audience?
I have a broad audience. The old school fans of all things history listen, sure, but per my goal, I’ve got a number of listeners who tell me they’ve always hated history until now.
I have AP history students, college students, and homeschooling students listening. I also professionals listening, white and blue collar. People who just want to brush up on things.
I kids listening; have retirees listening.
I’m all over the place!
4. Some history teachers and professors present their topics and they are boring. Yours provide some deeper insight with a little spice that garners attention and very positive feedback from the audience. How do you make the topics so interesting to the audience and what is your secret recipe for success?
Well, thank you for the kind compliment! The key here is easy to explain but hard to do: make history a story! No one cares about a name and a date until you bring it to life. So rather than bore you with the details of colonial taxation policy and mention that Patrick Henry was involved the fight, I take you into Patrick Henry’s fight. Show you his spirit. His Tenacity. And of course … the trouble he gets himself in. When I do that first, then I can tell you about colonial tax policy and you’ll care. Because you’re invested in Pat’s story. History teachers who do this day in and day out will find their students far more invested.
5. What topic presented in HTDS has become the most successful and talked about and why?
Oh, that’s hard to answer. I’d say the Revolution is a big hitter, but partly because that’s just where people start the podcast (at the beginning). Honestly, my audience doesn’t really cherry pick. I have consistent listens through the whole “story” of America that I’m telling.
6. What topics are you planning to present in the future? They can include some on your wish list.
Well, since I conceive of this podcast more as an audio textbook delivered in story mode, I will continue from where I am now (Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency) right through the 20th century. I’ll hit all the major events. I’m really looking forward to getting to World War I though. I wrote my dissertation partly on it, so it will be rewarding to revisit the subject.
7. How many episodes have you produced to date? How many topics have you presented?
Episodes to date: Number 112 will come out in a few days. Topics … wew, that depends on how you break it down. A lot! The Revolution, the early Republic, slavery, women’s history, military history, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Indian Wars, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Gilded Age. Basically, if an event was important to US history and happened between 1754 and 1908, I’ve covered it.
8. Of which, how many have dealt with American infrastructure and of course, historic bridges?
The obvious answers are the Brooklyn Bridge and Transcontinental Railroad episodes but frankly, I engage with infrastructure all the time! Infrastructure might not be sexy or glamorous enough for people to think about it (when they aren’t involved in it), but nations have to deal with at all times. Going all the way back to episode one, poor infrastructure (having to cut roads) is part of why George Washington lost to the french as a 22-year-old lieutenant colonel! Poor roads delayed the Constitutional Convention. The Industrial Revolution required and brought about more infrastructure. It’s littered throughout most if not all episodes.
In tomorrow’s article we will take an in depth look at his masterpiece on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and with that, the life of the Roebling Family and how they turned a dream of a crossing in New York into more of a reality- a landmark that has become one of America’s prized treasures.