VILLANOVA, Pa. – “Good history participates in ongoing conversations,” writes Villanova University Assistant Professor of History Whitney Martinko, PhD, in her blog post on The Woodlands website about a recent project undertaken by graduate students in her public history practicum.
Dr. Martinko wanted her class to conduct an in-depth project that would not only immerse them in history research and writing but also show them how doing history can contribute to the vitality of an essential public space.
The Woodlands, at which Dr. Martinko volunteers, is a 54-acre, 18th-century estate and cemetery that serves as much-needed green space in West Philadelphia. The cemetery, Dr. Martinko notes, was created in 1840 to preserve the estate of William Hamilton as the city urbanized.
“I charged my students with designing and executing a class project that would make the 18th-century history of the site legible to listeners who frequent the site and to ones who might never visit,” Dr. Martinko says.
To do this, the class decided to research, write and record a series of podcasts about the history of The Woodlands before it became a cemetery. Podcasts of all types have exploded in popularity in recent years. In fact, the historical podcast Ben Frankin’s World has surpassed 3 million downloads in the past three years.
“Podcasts are unique in that their content can be consumed through the course of daily activities,” says history graduate student Madison Bastress. “One audience we hoped to engage when we designed our series was people who already use The Woodlands as a green space, such as runners, but might not be aware of its history. However, we designed the podcasts so that they could be listened to without prior Woodlands knowledge.”
Dr. Martinko referred to this project as a way in which to ‘people the space’ at The Woodlands and encouraged us to connect their experiences with broader historical understandings related to race, gender, class, empire, and material culture in 18th-century Philadelphia.
Specifically, the podcast project sought to interpret the lives of those who worked and lived at The Woodlands, including indentured and free servants, laborers, craftsman, visitors and Hamilton family members.
“Dr. Martinko referred to this project as a way in which to ‘people the space’ at The Woodlands and encouraged us to connect their experiences with broader historical understandings related to race, gender, class, empire, and material culture in 18th-century Philadelphia,” says Bastress.
To begin this comprehensive process, the class read published scholarship and unpublished research about the Hamilton family and The Woodlands, and learned about doing history with, and for, public audiences. The class met with Jessica Baumert, Executive Director of The Woodlands, and discussed The Woodlands master plan. They then studied the elements of Ben Franklin’s World episodes and participated in an on-campus workshop with Liz Covart, PhD, the creator of that popular podcast whom Dr. Martinko met on a tour of The Woodlands in 2014.
“Dr. Covart stressed that well researched and communicated content was first and foremost,” Bastress says. “In thinking about communication, we discussed what common segments we wanted to include in our series and decided on a segment titled ‘Primary Exposure,’ in which each of us analyzed a primary source that was central to our research. The segment also provided us with an opportunity to reveal to listeners part of the process of doing history. Our written podcast scripts are fully footnoted, but since those footnotes are often not articulated in the recorded podcast, this segment was a useful way to share both content and process.”
Bastress also notes that the process of writing and recording the podcasts sharpened her writing skills, as she found she needed to re-write portions of her script once she started recording.
“I found that the project encouraged me to write more directly and actively, and also to be more attentive to organization,” she says.
Being more direct in writing has the effect of making history accessible to more people, an important principle of public history, and one that Baumert sees as essential for historians.
“So much academic research stays in academia,” she says. “We need to make sure that history gets out to the public.”
To facilitate this, Baumert and her staff worked with the students to create a section of The Woodlands website to house the podcast series, and Dr. Martinko and her class held a public event at The Woodlands on April 28 to celebrate the launch of the podcasts. The students hosted a roundtable to discuss their experiences, and then spent time speaking with visitors about their individual episodes and discussing architectural features and archaeological artifacts featured in the series.
Baumert is grateful for the work the Villanova students did to help bring to light the history of The Woodlands.
“The Woodlands, in its time, was so significant, and Hamilton was on the same plane as other figures of his time, but so much about the site is unknown,” she says. “I was impressed with the level of energy of the students and the pride they took in their work. They did a good job of responding to the site’s needs. With these podcasts, we now have the opportunity to get the people who use the site to better understand its history, and also educate people who have never visited. The podcasts are an extremely accessible tool, and we can monitor their use to help us design programming.”
Aside from the incredible experience doing public history for her students, Dr. Martinko views the podcast project as fulfilling two important goals.
“We hope that listeners enjoy hearing about the people who lived and worked at The Woodlands when it was an estate,” she writes. “But we also hope that the episodes expose how historians think and reveal some of the principles that guided us in creating them.”
Villanova’s Graduate Program in History is known for excellence in public history and has a record of preparing students for careers in Philadelphia’s many historic sites, museums and archives. Lean more about Graduate Programs in History at Villanova.