Liz Covart is host of the early American history podcast, Ben Franklin’s World, the and Digital Projects Editor for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Some of her favorite Ben Franklin’s World topics include Paul Revere, the Civil War, and the history of genealogy.
Who is Liz Covart?
History tells us who we are and how we came to be who we are. I seek to connect people with the early American past so they can better understand who Americans are and how they came to be who they are today.
I’ve helped people connect with the early American past in a variety of ways throughout my career. In the early 2000s, I worked as an interpretive ranger at the Boston National Historical Park. During my time with the National Park Service I gave interpretive programs about the Battle of Bunker Hill, the American Revolution, and the ways Americans sought to remember those events through the construction of the first major monument to the Revolution, the Bunker Hill Monument.
Today, I seek to connect people who have an interest in history with historians who produce it through my weekly podcast Ben Franklin’s World. Each interview represents an opportunity for me to share aspects of the early American past and highlight how historians work so we all better understand history and how we create it.
What factors led you to pursue a PhD in history from the University of California-Davis? Are there any professors from your graduate studies who indelibly shaped your approach to history?
History tells me “why.” Why we are who we are, why did people of the past act as they did, why did they establish our systems of government and cultural traditions as they did, why did events turn out as they did?
I’m insatiably curious and I want to understand the “why” behind everything. History proved to be a natural career path for me.
I also recognized the power of well-communicated history during my time in the National Park Service. Between 2002 and 2005, I witnessed what I’ve come to call the “David McCullough Effect.” McCullough published his biography, John Adams, and I witnessed how it helped inform and increase visitor interest in the American Revolution.
This prompted me to ask questions about how historians communicate history, which in turn led me to apply to graduate programs where I could work with historians who excel as both interpreters and writers. I chose to pursue a PhD at the University of California, Davis, because I wanted to work with Alan Taylor, a scholar who knows how to research, analyze, and communicate historical evidence in compelling ways.
What was the focus of your doctoral dissertation? What do you most remember about your dissertation defense?
I’m a New Englander, a Bostonian by birth and residence. My parents and entire extended family hail from New York and New Jersey. The regional rivalry and comparison between New York/New Jersey and New England ran deep in my upbringing and as a result I grew up fascinated by regional cultures and why and how they develop and exist.
During my first two weeks of residence in California, Alan Taylor inquired about my adjustment to the West Coast. Like me, Alan is a fellow New Englander. As we bonded over talk about the culture of our home region and the amazing run the 2004 Red Sox seemed to be on, I told him one idea from my new California classmates gave me pause: They talk about New York as if it was part of New England. New England and New York have some shared traits, but they mostly enjoy different regional cultures and traditions, so I asked Alan why he thought so many people in California and outside of the northeast thought New York was part of New England. He said something to the effect of “that’s an interesting question,” and he told me I might find answers by taking a look at the history of Albany, New York.
My dissertation “Collision on the Hudson: Identity, Migration, and the Improvement of Albany, New York, 1750-1830” investigated how the people of Albany created first Dutch, then British, and finally an American identity.
In conducting this research I learned a lot about the origins of the regional rivalry between New York and New England.
I also learned the answer to my question: Many believe New York is part of New England because after the American Revolution 700,000 to 800,000 New Englanders migrated into northern and western New York State. They settled on Haudenosaunee lands and established new New English towns in the state. New Englanders wrote histories that claimed they had transformed New York into a “Second New England.”
They claimed they did the same in the Hudson Valley, but my research revealed a different story. The people of Albany and the Hudson Valley forged Dutch, British, and American identities over time because they wanted to. The New English did not conquer these towns and take them over. The cultures and identities that emerged along the Hudson came to be through a negotiated process.
In terms of my dissertation defense, my program didn’t offer a formal defense. Although, I did have to defend my argument, use of evidence, and my analysis to my advisor with every sentence and in every chapter draft.
Tell us about Ben Franklin’s World. Why did you decide to start the podcast, what does it cover, and how has it evolved over time?
History tells us who we are and how we came to be who we are. I created Ben Franklin’s World because podcasts seemed like they’d be a great way to communicate information about history and connect people with historians who produced it. When I first conceived of the idea of starting a podcast in 2012/2013, no one produced a podcast about early American history and no one was interviewing historians with any regularity. History podcasts tended to be summaries of books hosts had read.
I craved a podcast with more depth and discussion. I also wanted a discussion of historical process. So I set out to create my dream podcast.
I spent 18 months researching podcasts before I launched Ben Franklin’s World .
I know this has seemed crazy to some, but how we communicate history is important and I wanted to understand how I could best use podcasts to convey information about history and the past.
Ben Franklin’s World is a weekly, mostly interview-driven podcast. It releases every Tuesday and it seeks to connect people who have an interest in the past with historians who have information about it. It’s called Ben Franklin’s World because nearly everyone knows who Ben Franklin was and when he lived; he evokes images of early America in people’s minds.
Plus, Franklin’s worldly life and legacy allow me to guide listeners through early American history in its broadest sense, just as Alan Taylor and other professors at UCDavis had done for me during my graduate education.
So each week we cover topics that span roughly 1450 to 1820 in period and the geography of North America, South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and when we can, the Pacific.
The world Ben Franklin lived in was global and that’s the world my teammates at the Omohundro Institute and I try to convey to listeners.
Speaking of the Omohundro Institute, this is a relationship I’d like to highlight because it’s been so important to the development and growth of the podcast. For more than 75 years, the Omohundro Institute has led in the innovation and publication of early American historical scholarship. They publish and support much of the best work out there.
In 2016, the OI and I developed a podcast series called Doing History in which we seek to really show listeners how historians and the historical process work. In 2017, I accepted the OI’s invitation to join its staff and partner on the podcast.
Ben Franklin’s World is what it is today because of the help and collaboration of my OI teammates Joseph Adelman, Kim Foley, Martha Howard, Emily Sneff, Holly White, and Karin Wulf.
How have your skills as an interviewer evolved over the years? What do you most wish you had known at the beginning of your podcasting journey?
I was nervous when I started. It was just me and my mic speaking to guests I couldn’t see, because prior to Episode 192, I conducted all interviews via a telephone call.
The nervousness prompted me to ask a question and then wait for guests to answer fully before I jumped in because I didn’t want to be rude and I couldn’t see them.
What started as a nervous tick developed into something listeners really liked. They quickly chimed in and said, “We like the fact you let guests talk.”
So that’s what I do, I interview and let guests talk.
I’ve always viewed my role as an interviewer as one where I guide guests through their work. I ask questions to solicit information listeners want and need to know. I also ask listeners what they want to ask guests and pose questions on their behalf.
So many interviewers want to weigh in and demonstrate how much they know, but I think the greatest interviewers think about their audience and always work to get at information that provides value for their audience.
Sometimes that value is weighing in. Most times it’s about asking better questions of your guests.
That’s what I think about as I interview and I reinforce this process by listening to all of my final episodes before I post them so I can hear myself and study my technique. This practice has been invaluable.
What are some of the pros and cons of podcasting as a medium to enhancing historical literacy?
Podcasts have the ability to humanize history and historians in ways other mediums can’t because podcasts allow us to convey thoughts, ideas, and stories in on-demand audio. Evolution and biology has hardwired human brains to be receptive to oral storytelling. It’s how we learn most of our important lessons as infants and toddlers. Podcasts make use of this trait. They also allow us to forge intimate connections with listeners.
Think about how you listen to a podcast.
Most of us listen through earbuds or headphones or when we’re by ourselves in our cars. Each of these situations allows us to create experiences whereby it’s just us and our favorite podcast host(s) having a “conversation.” And historians have a lot of stories to tell about the past. Podcasts offer us a great tool to convey history and forge a connection with people.
I believe the future of historical communication is multi-platform communication. The Omohundro Institute believes this too, which is why I accepted their offer to partner on the podcast. Books, articles, podcasts, blog posts, tweets, video—all of these mediums have strengths that can help us convey and spark interest in history.
What are the top 10 Ben Franklin’s World episodes?
Each episode of Ben Franklin’s World takes the Digital Projects Team at the Omohundro Institute about an hour of labor for every minute you hear. We take the quality of our program seriously.
When you spend that much time with each episode, you love each one, so for my Top 10 List, I offer you the 10 most downloaded episodes:
1. Episode 141: A Declaration in Draft
A look behind the parchment of the Declaration of Independence to explore how the document came to be. This episode was the fourth episode in the Omohundro Institute’s Doing History: To the Revolution series. This series asked and explored not just “what is the history of the American Revolution?” but “what are the histories of the American Revolution?”
2. Episode 130: Paul Revere’s Ride Through History
Why is it that we remember Paul Revere’s ride to Lexington, Massachusetts on April 18, 1775 and not any of his other rides? This episode stands as the third episode in the OI’s Doing History: To the Revolution series and is also the episode that won us the Academy of Podcasters’ Best History Podcast of 2017 award–a win that saw BFW best more well-known podcasts like Lore and Revisionist History.
3. Episode 123: Revolutionary Allegiances
How many Americans supported the patriot cause during the American Revolution? The second episode in the Doing History: To the Revolution series explores the complexities of political allegiance during the American Revolution.
4. Episode 114: Karin Wulf, The History of Genealogy
How did early Americans think about and construct their genealogies? Omohundro Institute Executive Director Karin Wulf takes us through her research about genealogy and its uses in early America. This episode was part of the very first Doing History series the Omohundro Institute and I produced. This original series, Doing History: How Historians Work, is dedicated to showing listeners how historians work—how they know what they know about the past.
5. Episode 200: Everyday Life in Early America
What was it like to go to school, receive mail, and maintain health and hygiene in early America? This listener-inspired episode took listeners’ most asked questions about early America and explored them with the assistance of three scholars.
6. Episode 110: Joshua Taylor, How Genealogists Research
How do genealogists conduct their research and find the information they need to build their family trees? As many listeners come to history through their own genealogical research, this Doing History: How Historians Work series episode explores how genealogists work and use history.
7. Episode 203: Joanne Freeman, Alexander Hamilton
Who was Alexander Hamilton as a real person? Hamilton expert and fellow podcaster (BackStory), Joanne Freeman, helps us grapple with and explore this large question so we can discover more about the man who helped create the United States.
8. Episode 202: The Early History of the United States Congress
Why and how did the United States House of Representatives take the shape and form it did during its early meetings? This episode features a conversation with the Historian of the United States House of Representatives and one of his colleagues, and they take us through the earliest United States congresses and how they evolved into the House of Representatives.
9. Episode 092: Sharon Block, How to Research History Online
How do historians conduct research online? As part of the Doing History: How Historians Work series, historian Sharon Block takes us through the many ways historians use digital archives to conduct historical research.
10. Episode 207: Nick Bunker, Young Benjamin Franklin
What in the first 40 years of his life made Benjamin Franklin the genius he became? Historian Nick Bunker joins us to explore Benjamin Franklin’s early life and how family, childhood, and youthful experiences shaped him as a scientist and diplomat.
What challenges and opportunities does social media pose for historians?
Social media provides historians with opportunities to reach new and different audiences for their work and to connect with and collaborate with colleagues around the world. I see social media as a great tool for conveying history and sparking an interest in it.
In terms of challenges, I think historians find two aspects of social media challenging.
The first is figuring out how to use each network to find the audience they want to reach. Each network works differently and attracts different users. It takes time to get to know a network and build an audience on one.
The second challenge is context. Some networks impose character limitations so it can be hard to convey a big historical point in pieces, especially when it seems likely someone will take a small portion of a big point and use it out of context.
You have talked in the past about creating a podcast network for historians. What kind of progress have you made on the project?
My experience podcasting showed me the power podcasts can have as a tool for history and historians, so back in 2015 or 2016, I had the idea that there should be a history podcast network produced by historians.
It turns out my vision proved a bit small.
By August 2016, I began to think about the different ways historians could use multiple forms of media to generate interest in and convey history. This idea prompted me to think that instead of a podcast network, historians should create and produce content for a multimedia network.
The Omohundro Institute liked this idea and we started talking about ways historians might build a media network. At some point during our conversations we realized we each had pieces of a multimedia network: The OI had the William and Mary Quarterly, it’s books, plus knowledge of the work coming out of its partnership with the Georgian Papers Programme and fellowship programs. I had a popular podcast, blog, and large social media presence.
We also realized that we both had different areas of knowledge and expertise when it came to history and media so we decided to partner and build a network together.
So in some ways, the OI and I created a multimedia history network when we formally partnered and I joined its staff as Digital Projects Editor in 2017. We also continually think about ways we can build on and enhance that network.
If you could create a five-book list covering the entirety of Vast Early America that all non-historians would read, what books would make your list?
To study early American history in its broadest sense an informed reader would need to read books that cover 400 years of history and span multiple continents, peoples, and civilizations. I love studying early America because it’s an area of history that always leads to a new-to-me discovery given its breadth.
There are so many great books to read. I would begin with taking a look at books by my graduate advisor, Alan Taylor. Readers will find American Colonies and American Revolutions helpful entry points into the field.
From there, I would go where your interests take you. If you like science, why not check out Cameron Strang’s Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850, Sam White’s, A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America, or Caroline Winterer’s, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason.
All of these books made me think, and their footnotes and endnotes prompted me to find other books of interest. If in doubt, follow and fuel your interests by making use of footnotes and endnotes in your favorite history books.