Interview: Liz Covart of Ben Franklin’s World

ben_franklins_worldLast week, The JuntoCasters—aka Ken Owen, Roy Rogers, and myself— appeared on the new, fast-growing podcast hosted by Liz Covart called Ben Franklin’s World, an interview-based early American history podcast that launched in October 2014. Already, the podcast has a catalogue of twenty-four episodes and a rapidly growing audience. Most episodes feature Liz interviewing a historian/author about a recent book and some of her past guests have included such notable historians as Alan Taylor, François Furstenberg, Claudio Saunt, Joyce Chaplin, and James Green, as well as The Junto’s own Sara Georgini for an episode about John and Abigail Adams and the Adams Papers.

We were honored to be invited to talk about The JuntoCast as well as our own work and The Junto. As a history podcaster myself, I think it’s about time that the sphere of early American history podcasting expands. And, indeed, I think Liz’s interview/book-based format is especially complementary to the round-table, long-form topical discussion format of The JuntoCast, and vice versa. Indeed, Liz recently appeared as a guest panelist on the The JuntoCast. Ken, Roy, and myself have tried to develop The JuntoCast into something that is useful for both the standard academic reader of The Junto and non-academics interested in history. And, for me, my own experience as the Producer of The JuntoCast for the last 2 years and the success of both The JuntoCast and Ben Franklin’s World reaffirms the importance and potential of podcasting for allowing academic historians who are so inclined to reach a broader audience beyond academia.

The following interview should serve as a reintroduction to our readers as Liz is a previous guest poster at The Junto. Here, she talks about the challenges and rewards of forging her own unique career path and professional identity as an alt-ac history professional and the role of podcasting and social media to that process.

JUNTO: What is your academic/historical background?

LIZ COVART: My historical background consists of training in both academic and public history. In terms of my academic training, I worked with William Pencak and Amy Greenberg as an undergraduate at the Pennsylvania State University. In graduate school, I honed my historical research, writing, and thinking skills with Alan Taylor at the University of California, Davis. My initial training in public history began at Boston National Historical Park where I worked as a seasonal interpretive ranger for five seasons. The wonderful experience I had interacting with the public has prompted me to seek out internships and volunteer opportunities with historical societies since 2007.

JUNTO: Can you tell us a bit about your post-PhD, alt-ac experience?

COVART: My post-PhD experience has been one of experimentation. About three years before I graduated I started having doubts about whether the “traditional” tenure-track career path was the path for me. I wanted a job that combined serious historical research, with the public history goal of helping people connect with their past. Since 2012, I have explored numerous opportunities in academic and public history. Today, I work as an independent scholar. I am fashioning a career as a hybrid academic-public historian, a position that represents the not-so-distant future of the historical profession. This hybrid position involves historical research and writing, collaboration between academic and public historians, opportunities to experiment with conveying history through new media, and chances to interact with colleagues and non-specialists at conferences and events.

Liz CovartJUNTO: Can you talk a little bit about how important social media has been in that experience so far and your approach to it?

COVART: Social media has been extremely important in my professional experience. It has connected me with colleagues all over the world, increased the reach of my blog posts and digital articles, and has helped me to convey the professionalism of my work. Social media and digital technologies fascinate me. They are mediums that we can use to convey history, foster collaboration between historians, and bridge the gap between historians and non-specialist history lovers. I spend time studying and experimenting with how historians can use websites, blogs, social networks, podcasts, and technologies such as Google Glass to create wide awareness about their work. I am sure I will experiment with other media and technologies as they become available. One not-so-distant future technology that I think could revolutionize how we convey and research history is virtual reality.

JUNTO: Why did you start Ben Franklin’s World? And why have you chosen to pursue podcasting in general?

COVART: I started Ben Franklin’s World because I want to create wide awareness about the work of professional historians. I am tired of history lovers referencing books by Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck as “history.” I also think it is time professional historians close the gap between themselves and non-specialist history lovers. Podcasts allow historians to satisfy two important human desires: hear stories and be productive. Human beings love stories. We use stories to shape our worldviews and solve problems. Podcasts allow historians to convey history with oral storytelling. Listeners can also feed their desire to learn from the past while running at the gym, driving to work, or walking the dog. Finally, the oral nature of podcasts encourages listeners to form a bond with the storyteller. I have formed many virtual bonds (dare I say friendships) with my listeners. This connection feels very real and in turn helps them feel vested in my work and message: that by understanding the past we can affect a better future.

JUNTO: How do you see podcasting as fitting in with your other professional pursuits and your identity?

COVART: Aside from the fact that Ben Franklin’s World is achieving my goal of helping history lovers connect with and better understand the early American past, I have realized that podcasting has several professional benefits that I had not considered when I began podcasting. First, I have become well-versed in the current historiography of early America. Second, I have expanded my professional network. The podcast has allowed me to meet (at least virtually) many scholars that I admire and others whom I did not know but now have a friendly acquaintance with. Third, Ben Franklin’s World allows me to foster more cooperation among historians. I have conducted over thirty, 30-to-60-minute interviews to date. These interactions have provided me with a good idea of what historians are working on, which in turn allows me to connect professional historians with each other and history lovers with professional historians.

JUNTO: What’s next for both yourself and Ben Franklin’s World?

COVART: Presently, I am revising my dissertation into a book, which I have tentatively titled “America’s First Gateway.” The book explores the history of Albany, New York and how the people there developed first a Dutch, then a British, and finally an American identity. I will finish a readable draft of the complete manuscript by the end of the year. Ben Franklin’s World has an exciting future ahead of it. I have scheduled interviews through September and I have plans for our first listener meet-up, which will take place on August 15, 2015 in Boston. The meetup will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act and Boston Stamp Act riots with a special tour I am developing in collaboration with Boston By Foot.

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