NHA on the Hill: A Humanities Research Briefing With the Hosts of BackStory

On May 21 we partnered with Virginia Humanities and the hosts of the history podcast BackStory to produce a briefing on Capitol Hill. The event, which was held in the Russell Senate Office Building, offered congressional staff and others the opportunity to see for themselves the power of humanities research. Beyond the books and articles produced by humanities scholars, humanities research offers critical insights into our past and present that help grapple with major challenges and prepare for the future.

A weekly podcast, BackStory takes a long view on current events, offering historical context for today’s pressing issues. The podcast began in 2008 with the support of Virginia Humanities and has since then received additional support from the NEH. Recent episodes take on subjects like “Paying for the Past: Reparations and American History,” “Red in the Stars and Stripes: A History of Socialism in America,” and “Teen Activists: A History of Youth Politics and Protest.” The hosts are trained historians and university professors and the show brings serious humanities research to popular audiences—it is downloaded more than 500,000 times each month.

On the Hill, BackStory hosts Ed Ayers, Joanne Freeman, and Brian Balogh took on “The Divided States of America,” digging into the history of our divisions and showing how the humanities shed light on our current political climate. An engaged group of Hill staffers, federal relations staff, and other local partners listened in as the hosts discussed (and debated) divisive American politics from the Revolutionary Era—when neighbor was pitted against neighbor—to the Civil War and, in the twentieth-century, the battles fought over Civil Rights. Freeman mentioned her most recent book The Field of Blood, which focuses on physical violence in Congress. Ultimately, this historical take emphasized that real division is nothing new—and in fact we are not more divided than ever before. It also gave insight into what helps us overcome divisions peaceably: dialogue.

BackStory hosts draw upon a range of humanities research and primary sources for their shows. Toward the close of the briefing, producer Melissa Gismondi stepped in to pull back the curtain on the production process, showcasing how the show relies on a rich network of academic research and archives. She also spoke about BackStory’s most recent NEH grant, which is helping them produce resources and shows specifically for use in classrooms.

In the end, we had time for questions—about Reconstruction, and the role of historiography in the show, among others. Thank you to Ed, Joanne, Brian, Melissa, and Virginia Humanities for their partnership on this program. And if you missed the event, don’t worry! You can download the pre-recorded episode “Divided States of America? The History of an Often Disjointed Union” on the BackStory website and check out our briefing document on NEHforAll.org.

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