Podcasts as Models for Historical Essays

My U.S. Economic History course begins again this spring, and it is a popular course among history secondary education and middle school education students here at Fitchburg State. But it also draws from students in Economics and Business, particularly Marketing and Accounting.

As such, I’m tasked with making the course useful to more than the generally interested student, but to students who may need some practical application of the course. I’ve revised it to focus more on the development of American and global capitalism, the history of financial panics, and the development of modern business practices and governmental reform and regulation.

There are numerous readings and textbooks I could assign–as I am. Students will have the traditional Walton/Rockoff (ebook) textbook, the new reader by Louis Hyman and Edward Baptist, and they will read Scott Reynolds Nelson’s A Nation of Deadbeats and Bryant Simon’s Everything but the Coffee. All of these books are fantastic reads, but to make this notoriously dry subject (it’s really not, but it has a certain reputation) come even more alive, I’m turning to podcasts.

As Erin Bartram has found, podcasts featuring historians and historical narrative can engage students with bigger questions about argument and how teachers construct useful narratives in class. For my purposes, I’m hoping to engage students with topics that can be somewhat technical or arcane — such as the history of the gold standard and its relationship to the Great Depression, etc. — or that may seem to have little connection to the history of economics (eg. how beards in the 19th century relate to the development of capitalism).

I’ve thus had to update my list of podcast episodes that will provide engaging and useful concepts and narratives for my students.

What follows is by no means a comprehensive list. Rather, it’s a working compendium from which I will draw for course discussion and assignments over the ensuing semester.

The challenge here is how to scale these into larger assignments. While they may be useful in stimulating class discussion, I’ve had to think about how to make these a useful exercise. Rather than channeling them back into the course themes, I’ve decided to take a more functional approach. Instead, I’m using these podcasts as examples for how to construct engaging research papers and as models for the final project that students will complete.

Podcasts are engaging because they have an argumentative structure.

They usually begin with a hook — an intriguing story or individual, a question posed in an interesting way, or the setup of some popular fallacy or popular memory. They then go into the evidence, analyzing it and comparing it with what experts have said. They consult experts, they develop the argument throughout, and they sum it up and draw some conclusions.

What is useful, too, is that this structure varies depending on the topic or the nature of the problem addressed. This teaches students about the adaptability of research and argument-driven writing. The structure needs to be logical, supported with evidence, and in conversation with experts: but ultimately it’s the subject and the argument itself that drive the structure and the presentation of evidence. It needs to be made accessible for a general audience, explaining key terms as they come up, but also be rigorously researched and engagingly written—including examples that illustrate and stimulate their listener or reader.

At the end of the semester, students will be creating their own audio papers. The town in which our university resides, Fitchburg, MA, is a perfect location for such a course. Located in an original colony, it industrialized in the 19th century, featured many of the prominent corporate entities of the 20th century and related suburban and consumer development, and experienced the troubles associated with deindustrialization since the 1970s. The classic downtown can be read as a microcosm of this history. At the end of the semester, students  will create an audio walking tour of the Main Street that explores the city’s history as a window into the broader economic history of the city, state, nation, and globe. Each student will create their own research paper based on directory information and other material found in the university archives or the local historical society — but their final product will be in audio form with a transcript, suitable for distribution. They will not be as long or as elaborate as the podcasts listened to over the course of the semester, but the format will be familiar because of repeated exposure.

Here is the list of episodes I’m considering, drawn mostly (so far) from Backstory, NPR’s Planet Money, and 99% Invisible:

Institutions, Markets, and Ideologies 




Rumming with the Devil by BackStory

Revolutionary Spirit by BackStory

Patrick Henry, from “Paying Up” by BackStory

Early Republic


The Jacksonian Backlash Against Corporations by BackStory

On the Cheap, from “Paying Up” by BackStory


The 19th Century

All Together Now by BackStory

Workin’ on the Railroad by BackStory


Slaves for Hire by BackStory


Route Cause by BackStory 

Big Business  and Cultures of Capitalism

Coca Cola Capitalism by BackStory


City Men on the Beard “Frontier” by BackStory

Rockefeller’s Rose by BackStory


Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps by BackStory



Clean Skin, Dirty Minds by BackStory

From Populists to Politicos by BackStory

The Gold Standard




Great Depression and World War II




Bonding Time, from “Borrowed Times” by BackStory


Celebrity CEOs by BackStory


Taxes in War and Peace from, “Paying Up” by BackStory

Global Trade and Inequality, Consumption, and Looking to the Future









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