John Fea & Rebecca Onion on being a historian in public

Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion

Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I did what I usually do when I can’t sleep, and started listening to a podcast.  This turned out to be a mistake–I should have listened to the soothing sounds of the BBC news overnight, but instead I dialed up The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast, and got to listen to the most recent episode featuring Slate‘s Rebecca Onion, Andrew Hermeling, and John Fea.  Many of you may know Rebecca as the doyenne of The Vault, Slate’s blog about historical documents and images.  That’s how she got her start there, but now she’s a staff writer.  (Her personal website can be found here.)

Episode 12/Season 2, “How to Be a Historian in Public,” is most definitely worth your while because John and Drew ask Rebecca to let us behind the curtain to hear about her journey to an alternative academic (alt-ac) career.  Rebecca is (as we learned this spring at the Western Association of Women’s History on the Presidential Panel) very forthcoming about how it all works, and how fortunate she is to be paid to put words on the internet.

Take a listen.  You’ll hear John relate his experiences on the road at megachurches in greater Phoenix to talk about his book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (2011), about the important skills Rebecca learned writing at a teen magazine YM (which I believe used to be called Young Miss) like writing to word count and deadline, how to pitch ideas to magazine editors, and she gives a shout-out to the similarly defunct but awesome teen girl mag Sassy, which was important for a number of young feminists in the early 1990s.


University of North Carolina Press, 2016

Without being trained in public history, Rebecca’s commentary suggests that she has effectively trained herself to think like a public historian when she approaches her work for Slate.  Although she has particular love for writing about the period 1880-1940 in The Vault and is an American Studies Ph.D. who writes about the twentieth-century U.S. (as in her brand-new book, Innocent Experiments:  Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the U.S.), she notes that in her work, she can’t stay only in the comfort zone of expertise.  She has to write about ideas and artifacts across American history, much the way that public historians have to be trained and ready all-rounders who can work with whatever (or whomever) walks in the door.

Subscribe to The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast on i-Tunes; it’s very much worth your while.  I really enjoy the TWOILH podcasts, which feel very much like being a fly on the wall of a conversation between three very smart people.  Your only frustration will be that you can’t ask questions yourself!

5 thoughts on “John Fea & Rebecca Onion on being a historian in public

  1. Ooooh this sounds very cool. I love The Vault and have used Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? in my Religion in America class. Very good for undergrads, if you’re looking for a textbook.

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