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Uncommon Sense

By Joseph M. Adelman · August 15, 2017

Teaching with Ben Franklin's World

Doing History 8 min read

Among many other things, the advent of history podcasts has opened new possibilities for engagement both inside and outside of the classroom at all levels. The first Doing History series, which outlines the process that historians use to develop and create historical research projects, was designed in part for exactly that purpose. Over the past few months, we’ve heard from numerous teachers at all levels from elementary to college about the ways in which they’re using Doing History and Ben Franklin’s World as part of their teaching and professional development. With a new semester just about to begin and instructors polishing up syllabi and lesson plans, we wanted to share how some teachers are doing so.

Over the past few weeks, we surveyed instructors about how they’re using the podcast in the classroom. We are very grateful for all of the responses we received, and are excited to learn about what you’re doing with episodes.

In my own courses, I use Ben Franklin’s World as an extra credit enrichment assignment both in introductory survey courses as well as upper-level courses for majors. The survey courses enroll students who are taking the course primarily to fulfill a general education credit, so I allow them to listen to any episode they find interesting. At the intermediate level, where most students are majors and the courses more specialized, I tailor the episode list to the course topic, such as last fall when I pulled about fifteen episodes related to the history of media and communications.[1] Christopher Jones, who teaches at Brigham Young University, likewise offers extra credit to students who listen to an episode and write a one-page response. “The goal of the extra credit assignment,” he notes, “is to let students either delve more deeply into a subject we covered only briefly in class or explore something we did not get to discuss.”

For other faculty, Ben Franklin’s World episodes substitute for reading assignments or allow teachers to diversify the work they do inside the classroom. Linzy Brekke-Aloise, who teaches at Stonehill College, now integrates podcasts like Ben Franklin’s World into her course meetings as part of a “collective listening” exercise. “I am constantly amazed at what my students do or don’t hear in class or what they do or do not take away from readings,” she reports. During the exercise, students listen to a 10-minute clip from an episode and take notes – jotting down quotations, keeping track of data, and so on. It’s not surprising, as Brekke-Aloise notes, that “they all capture something slightly different.” When the clip ends, she then leads the students in discussion about what they listened to. The exercise is particularly useful because students “become more aware of the silences, omissions, and distortions in primary sources” when they consider how their notes vary across the room, and that therefore not every student heard the same things from a single recording. According to Brekke-Aloise, “this has helped them gain a more nuanced, sophisticated and careful approach towards historical research and interpretation.”

A few specific episodes have proven popular with students and teachers, including:

  • Episode 84, Zara Anishanslin, “How Historians Read Historical Sources (Doing History)”
  • Episode 99, Mark Hanna, “Pirates & Pirate Nests in the British Atlantic World”
  • Episode 120, Marcia Zug, “A History of Mail Order Brides in Early America”
  • Episode 125, Teri Snyder, “Death, Suicide, and Slavery in British North America”

Other teachers have focused in on the Doing History series as a way to teach historical methods to their students. Andrew Swan, a middle school teacher in Massachusetts, expressed excitement at “the recent focus on HOW history gets done,” and looks forward to using episodes. Rosalind Beiler of the University of Central Florida is using the series in her graduate course on Atlantic migration to supplement course readings. The Doing History episodes, she noted, were “especially helpful for MA students who are observing historians at work as they are reading their interpretations.” The episodes have also found their way into courses on library skills and research in English departments, such as one taught by Greg Specter of Duquesne University. To give one example, the very first episode of the Doing History series (a bonus episode) includes historians Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Alan Taylor, Rebecca Onion, and Caroline Winterer discussing how and why they study history. Using that episode – either as an assignment or in class — can open up discussions about the practices of historical research and writing for students at any level.

This fall, Doing History returns for a second season entitled, To the Revolution! Over the course of sixteen episodes, we’ll explore not only the history of the American Revolution, but also its histories. In addition to the episodes, the OI now features bonus content and additional material on the OI Reader app (available for both iOS and Android). For our most recent Doing History teaser episode on the Declaration of Independence, you can view an annotated version of the Dunlap broadside, view images of Jefferson’s manuscript draft, or read a free article from the William and Mary Quarterly.

At its conclusion, the survey invited respondents to discuss additional resources that the Ben Franklin’s World team can create to help instructors integrate episodes into their teaching. We received some exciting suggestions and look forward to further developing the series and its related tools. We would also love to hear your suggestions and ideas.

Be sure to visit the pages for Ben Franklin’s World and the Doing History series. You can download episodes by subscribing to the podcast through iTunes or your favorite podcast player.


[1] On the philosophy of offering extra credit, see “History All Around Us,” The Junto, May 7, 2014.


Zara's episode was the first I assigned to my women's history course at Schreiner University, an online, 300-level course. By time I taught the second half of US History online the next semester, there were 1-2 podcasts (mostly Backstory and Whose Century Is It) assigned each week in the syllabus.
Michelle Mormul  •  August 16, 2017

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