Podcast Review: Drafting the Past

Click on the image to go to the Home Page of Drafting the Past’s website, or click here: http://draftingthepast.com/.

Audio Recording of my Review of Drafting the Past can be found here.

If you want to follow along, you can read the following transcript below.

Podcast Review: Drafting the Past, Hosted by Kate Carpenter

Most people associate the profession of a historian with academia, and while academic historians certainly are a large piece of the pie, that’s not the only path that historians can take. 

Academic or otherwise however, one thing that any historian will probably tell you is this: writing is one of, if not the most essential aspects of doing history. 

For all its importance, there has been shockingly little discourse surrounding the actual process and craft of writing history, especially through a non-academic lens.

Thankfully there is now a space in which historians can discuss their writing, not just as professional historians, but as professional writers too.

Drafting the Past is a podcast created and hosted by professional historian and writer, Kate Carpenter. 

The podcast is, in Carpenter’s own words, “devoted to the craft of writing history.”

Each episode involves Carpenter interviewing a different historian, seeking to understand how they comprehend and conduct the task of writing history.

Be it their actual writing process, their organization, or their sources of inspiration, Drafting the Past provides a platform for professional historians to provide their input and advice on historical writing.

 Since the release of its first episode on February 15th, 2022, thirty six episodes of Drafting the Past have been produced and published, with Carpenter showing no sign of slowing down any time soon. 

With the podcast set to cross the two-year mark in the upcoming months, it’s a good time to look back on where this program began, if only to appreciate how far it’s come.

In this review of Drafting the Past by Kate Carpenter, we’ll hold Carpenter to her word, and determine how well the podcast fulfills its goal of providing a platform for professional historians to discuss the process of writing history.

First, some context. 

It should be noted that Kate Carpenter, the creator and host of Drafting the Past, is no stranger to the concept of historical writing. 

A doctoral candidate in the History of Science at Princeton University, she earned a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a Master of Arts in History, with a specialization in public history, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Currently, when she is not busy with hosting or producing Drafting the Past, she’s usually writing her dissertation, which focuses on the history of tornado science and storm chasing in the second half of the twentieth century.

As for the actual podcast itself, Drafting the Past frequently blurs the line between an interview and a conversational podcast. 

While Carpenter does have some form of guiding questions for each guest, episodes soon turn into a much more natural and fluid conversation.

Each episode has a new guest, all of which are professional historians who have some experience in historical writing. 

For example, in the first episode Carpenter spoke with author and historian Dr. Megan Kate Nelson, author of The Three-Cornered War which was a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist in the category of history, on how fiction can be utilized as an inspiration for history writers by providing a roadmap for narrative structure.

Kate Carpenter 6:16

It sounds like, though, you had already spent time thinking about style and narrative, even, even at the dissertation stage, and in your first two books. Has changing careers changed your relationship to writing?

Megan Kate Nelson 6:30

I think so. I mean, I am now fully on board with narrative history writing. For myself, I don’t think every book has to be narrative history. I don’t think every book really or every book topic is really conducive to that style, or that style would be useful. But for me personally, it took a little bit to shift from that academic mode into the narrative mode. And my first mistake was that I went like full on over, like, my first drafts were very narrative heavy with almost no argumentation. And my editor was like, you do need to have an argument. It can’t just be a story. And I was like, oh, okay, so then I had to go back in and really figure out how to balance narrative and argumentation in a way that continues to pull the reader along.

In the second episode, Carpenter spoke with Davarian Baldwin, author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities and Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life, who offered some rather eye-opening points about the relationship between ideas and narrative in historical writing.

Davarian Baldwin 39:26

So the Black community in Chicago has been arguably arguably the most studied community in the country because of Chicago School sociology. But a lot of that writing is just trash, it’s horrible, it’s it’s borderline minstrel in its renderings. It’s caricature, it’s stereotype. It’s, it’s racial trauma. And so I had to deploy the approach of my mentor Robin Kelly, through you know, EP Thompson via my mentor Robin Kelly to read the sources against the grain, right? To read the sources of power against the grain. But as I was reading these materials against the grain. I was like, wait a minute, these materials have a story within themselves. You know, for so long sociologists had been very proud to say that they were some of the first social science, the first to talk about race. And to craft that idea about race. I was like, Well, wait a minute, what’s actually happening here is that their anxieties about race and racial difference are crafting them.

In the third episode, Carpenter spoke with Dr. Bathsheba Demuth, an assistant professor of history and environment and society at Brown University known for her award-winning book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, about how she evokes the feeling of a place in her audience.

Bathsheba Demuth 24:53

So I can spend a really long time writing these opening segments of an essay because what I’m really doing is trying to figure out what the darn thing is about. And in this case, I realized that the kind of, since it was a piece of travel writing, the journey that I wanted to take readers on was, you know about being in this place in Chukotka, but it was about also thinking about whales as beings that you can go to see, but they also have these kind of independent lives. And so that’s where you get the first sentence from, it actually kind of maps out where the whole essay is going, walks you through different ways people have known whales, but then turns to thinking about the whale herself, and what a gray whale is in the world. And that just comes from sort of what we know of them, and what people have observed of them. And, you know, the opening paragraph also let me do some work that’s just kind of important for any essay, which is telling you where in the world you’re going to be, and how you’re getting there. So you know, we kind of follow the whale to the North Pacific, follow her, see why she goes to the North Pacific, you know, because it’s sort of important for her as a as a being. And that’s, that’s something that I have learned about this kind of non academic writing is, there are certain things you need to be able to tell readers pretty early on, so that they can orient themselves. And finding an entry point into an essay that allows that to happen is important. So that’s the kind of slow way, I basically I was constantly revising the same sentence over and over again, and then writing just a lot about whale behavior, and then kind of paring it down into this.

Lastly, in the fourth episode, Carpenter speaks with George Mason University professor of history Dr. Zachary Schrag, author of works such as The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, and The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, about the actions and motives of the very human individuals behind historical records.

Zachary Schrag 25:49

There’s been, you know, fantastic social history of Philadelphia done, a lot of it was done in the late 1960s, the Philadelphia social history project with people going through census records and tax records. And you know, this is another linkage between narrative history and scholarly history is a lot of narrative history builds on scholarly history. So I was using, you know, great research that had been done in previous decades, as well as my own to try to locate various actors, but especially Cadwalader in the social and economic structure of the city. And so you know, I have his tax records, to some degree, I have his 1850 census records, and I have descriptions of his life. So I was trying to summarize a lot of that into a fairly small place. And again, Scott Berg will tell you, you know, a lot of great writing is cutting. And so how do I give a sense of who Cadwalader was without telling every detail about all of his purchases, and travels and hard work and all the rest, I’m trying to give the sense that, you know, he was a wealthy man, he could have been idle. But he writes this great letter, thank goodness, explaining that he did not want to be idle. He wanted to be active, you know, both in his business affairs, but also in civic affairs, and not wanting to be involved in politics, per se, he chose the militia as his way to be a public person.

Each of these four guests have a different historical focus. Nelson’s is American history specializing on westward expansion, Baldwin’s is the history of the African American community within the context of places like Chicago, Demuth’s is environmental history, and Shrag’s is the intersectionality between politics and social culture in the US during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

 Yet all four of these individuals have tackled the challenge of historical writing, and the need to balance the academic standards that come with it against the image of writing history as a bland, uninteresting process. 

If there is one thing that Carpenter and her guests make clear, however, it’s that historical writing isn’t a one lane street.

This is in large part due to the different types of history that each individual is writing, not just in terms of subject matter, but in terms of the essence of what they’re actually trying to say with their writing.

Yet there is still such a lack of discussion surrounding the actual process of historical writing, that virtually any advice is good advice.

It is in this regard that Drafting the Past firmly reaches its core goal of seeking to provide a platform for the discussion of historical writing for those seeking guidance in doing so.

Also, as a podcast, it’s perfectly paced. With each episode ranging from thirty five to forty five minutes, Carpenter and her guests rarely-if at all-play things out for longer than they need to.

With all of this in mind, it is little wonder how Drafting the Past has achieved the position of being the premier podcast on historical writing.

Whether a professional historian yourself, a graduate student, or an undergraduate student,  Drafting the Past is a valuable resource as it provides a tremendous amount of professional advice and guidance from individuals who speak from experience.

Episodes of Drafting the Past are available on its website, draftingthepast.com, as well as wherever podcasts can be found, such as the Apple Podcast App, Spotify, Google Podcasts or Pandora. 

For Loyola University Chicago, I’m Harrison Seeling, wishing you all happy listening and writing, signing Off.


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