Podcasting Local Community Memories: Merits and Limits

By Sean Jacobson

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Hello there! I’m privileged to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection. My name is Sean Jacobson, and I am a second-year PhD student in the Public History and American History joint program at Loyola University Chicago (the home of Sister Jean’s Ramblers for those who followed any March Madness last season). 

My varied research interests include 20th century American history, history of American evangelicalism, public memory, genocide studies, and global humanitarianism. I’ve enjoyed being part of a program that allows me to integrate public history endeavors alongside more conventional (for lack of a better word) academic study of the past. Even in my limited time at Loyola thus far, I’ve been able to work on a wide range of projects from traditional seminar papers to NEH grant writing to historical walking tour proposals and, most recently, podcasts.

The subject of what constitutes “public history” is a discussion in itself, but for my limited purpose in this post, I concern myself with one particular question: How much power and voice can or should historians share with their research subjects and stakeholders?

I tried to explore this through a recent podcast project while in a course on material culture. As someone interested in the intersections of faith, trauma, and memory, I decided to make a podcast about genocide memorials in the Chicago area. Since Chicago is, unsurprisingly, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, I had a plethora of communities available to reach out to.

While I had some academic background with media (I earned a BA in History and Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University), I had never yet attempted to make a podcast. Thus, I had multiple motives with this project. For one, I wanted to get an experience actually making a podcast (forewarning: it’s hard work!). Related to that, I wanted to see what value there might be in conducting community-based research with this methodology. Additionally, the experience forced me to get out of my comfort zone and make cross-cultural networks with different communities (these often started with cold phone calls). Who knows – these connections might serve as building blocks down the road for future research and service work.

I won’t spend time talking about the specifics of my podcast (called Testimony), but I’m attaching an iTunes link here for anyone who is interested in learning about it. Instead, I want to briefly highlight a couple takeaways on the merits and limits of podcasts as a tool for taking your history research into the “public history” realm.

Merits

The most positive outcome is the connections made with living communities. For example, it’s one thing to read about a subject like the Cambodian Genocide; it’s another to actually be immersed a local diaspora community that’s actively trying to make sense of a traumatic past and, as a mediator, give those people a platform to express themselves orally. This was both challenging and rewarding. It was challenging because I sometimes felt like an intrusive outsider trying to reach these communities. It was rewarding, though, because interacting with real people allowed me to see the significance of my research subject matter.

When someone does topical studies or comparative studies, the fostering of interaction between different parties has the potential to create greater solidarity and convey research to a wider audience. Many of the communities with which I interacted for the podcast struggle to find an audience beyond their own ethnic or religious enclave. As such, doing this kind of work may help share their story and needs with a more general public.

Limits

This gets me to limitations of podcasting as “public history.” If I’m trying to share communities’ memory with a wider audience, how much authority is actually shared with those constituents? To take again for example the Cambodian community in greater Chicago, I encountered some linguistic and cultural barriers when recording and editing an episode on their day of remembrance vigil service. Considering the aural nature of a podcast, how appropriate is it for me to interpret/speak for some Cambodian immigrants who might have trouble expressing themselves or their history in English? Does that undermine the purpose of a podcast as a place to give their voice a platform?

Additionally, how critical can/should I be when tackling such a sensitive topic like genocide? On the podcast, I ventured on the safe side of not expressing any overt opinion on these communities’ presentation of their own histories. Is this the right approach to take? I believe historians ought to be as objective as possible but also not hesitate to make moral judgement calls or identify problematic interpretations of history.

As you can see, I don’t have definite answers to my own questions. As frustrating as this can be, I know that I will gain more clarity with the more experience I create. I can certainly see myself continuing future podcasts on other topics related to my research fields. The nice thing about podcasts, compared to videos or online exhibits, is that they are so versatile. People can listen to podcasts with little restriction. It’s an easy, low-risk way for people to learn about new ideas while engaging in a fast-paced world. At the same time, podcasts saturate the market so much that they can be ephemeral. If not repeatedly posting new content and advertising aggressively on social media, podcast episodes can have a short lifespan if few people ever listen to them shortly after their release.

For any readers out there, have any of you tried making a history podcast? What was your experience like? Do you think they qualify as public history? Could making one possibly help you flesh out research ideas?  I’d love to hear any feedback! 

Asian American Representation in Film and Television

Movie poster for  Crazy Rich Asians  (2018) starring Henry Golding and Constance Wu.

Movie poster for Crazy Rich Asians (2018) starring Henry Golding and Constance Wu.

By Jennifer Liu

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, it is worth examining Asian American representation in recent films and television shows. As the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S., Asian Americans currently make up 6% of the population and are projected to account for 38% of all American immigrants in 50 years. Yet they have remained virtually absent from mainstream entertainment until recently. On August 17, Crazy Rich Asians will be released; it’s the first major Hollywood production that is not a period piece to feature an all-Asian cast in twenty-five years (since The Joy Luck Club in 1993). Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestselling novel, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy about a Singaporean heir who brings his Chinese-American girlfriend home to meet his family.

The film arrives at a time when the entertainment industry is hotly debating the issue of diversity. The film market in China is second only to the U.S., but despite that nation’s box office contribution, very few major American films feature Asian characters. According to a study by the University of Southern California, only 5% of speaking parts in film, television, and digital programming were played by Asian actors in 2014. Moreover, whitewashing – hiring white actors to play characters originally designated Asian – still occurs. Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017), a live-action Hollywood remake of one of the most successful Japanese anime movies in history. Other examples of recent whitewashing and erasure of Asian actors include Emma Stone playing a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character named “Allison Ng” in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2016); Matt Damon in the starring role of a big-budget Chinese period action film The Great Wall (2016); Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a Tibetan high priest in the original comics but reimagined as a Celtic mystic for Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016); and white-dominated Hollywood versions of Asian stories such as The Last Airbender (2010) and Dragon Ball Evolution (2009).

A multi-university group of California professors and scholars studied 242 TV shows and 2,052 series regulars from broadcast, cable, and streaming television scripted shows airing between September 1, 2015 and August 31, 2016. Their report, a follow-up to broadcast TV studies done in 2005 and 2006, concluded that although there are more opportunities for Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) actors than before, their characters remain marginalized and tokenized on screen. Roles are often of lower quality: characters get less screen time, have less meaningful interactions (including less romantic storylines), or are clearly cast as tokens. Despite the minimum amount of progress for AAPI actors, strides have been made. On the small screen, Asian-American-led TV shows are on the rise. For example, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat has a predominantly Asian-American cast. Inspired by celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, the sitcom follows a Taiwanese-American family that moves to Orlando in the 1990s. The show features an oldest son who loves hip-hop and misadventures, with his parents dishing out moral lectures with uniquely Asian-American points of view. Since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl was cancelled in 1995 (after one season), there hadn’t been a primarily Asian-American cast on network television for twenty years. Currently, Fresh Off the Boat is the only show with an Asian-American-majority cast on network television. Dr. Ken – an ABC show about a Korean-American physician with no bedside manner, his Japanese-American therapist wife, and their two kids –  was cancelled in 2017.

Actor/writer Aziz Ansari (R) and writer Alan Yang (L) accept the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the  Master of None  episode “Parents” during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 18, 2016.

Actor/writer Aziz Ansari (R) and writer Alan Yang (L) accept the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the Master of None episode “Parents” during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 18, 2016.

Critics have praised two shows with three-dimensional Asian-American leads that go beyond Asian stereotypes. Netflix’s Emmy-winning Master of None – the story of a struggling Indian-American actor in New York told through a distinct, unexpected storytelling lens – features Aziz Ansari essentially playing a version of himself. And HBO’s Emmy-nominated limited series The Night Of, starring Riz Ahmed, follows a nice guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, who ends up accused of murder and imprisoned. The show dives deep into identity politics, the perception of Pakistanis, and the legal system to explore how a strong-willed, moral man can be transformed and turn bad. In addition, recent shows like The Walking Dead, Quantico, The Good Place, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Designated Survivor, Into the Badlands, Agents of SHIELDThe Mindy Project, and Andi Mack have featured Asian-American actors as the lead or regular cast member. The decades-long absence of leading Asian-American actors seems to be on the brink of a major shift.


Jennifer Liu is an Associate Professor of History at Central Michigan University. Her research interest focuses on twentieth-century China and Taiwan.