Thank you Dr. Annette Laing for your participation in this interview! HEB is excited to hear your perspective on engaging people with non-boring history. Humanities E-Book started as the ACLS History E-Book Project in 1999, so history is near and dear to us. Your experience as an academic and a public historian gives you a unique perspective that I hope will be enlightening for all of HEB’s audience.
About Annette Laing: Born in the UK, Dr. Annette Laing is a recognized historian of early America and the Atlantic World, the author of “The Snipesville Chronicles” time-travel novels, and a public historian who brands herself a practitioner of Non-Boring History. She was a tenured professor of history at Georgia Southern University for many years before resigning to work as a public historian, bringing programs to schools and teachers’ meetings throughout Georgia and beyond.
Q: Previously tenured at Georgia Southern University and with several scholarly articles published, you decided to meld your passions for history and teaching to make history more accessible for a broad audience and engaging for young people. What led you to make that transition?
I didn’t mean to reinvent myself as a public historian, not at first. I celebrated tenure in 2003 with a midlife crisis, and, opting against a sports car, I decided to try my hand at a children’s program: Colonial Kids’ Fair that included hands-on crafts, tastes of early American drinks, and other modest activities. It was a success, and emboldened me to do something more ambitious.
The following year, I launched TimeShop, which was essentially immersive theater. I turned the university conference center into a small town in England in 1940, cast my undergraduates as costumed characters and T-shirted guides, and persuaded a hundred small-town Georgia kids to imagine themselves as time travelers pretending to be wartime British evacuees. The kids shopped with ration books and real shillings and pence, visited a movie theater, attended school, experienced an air raid, did chores in a home, which included the use of a 1930s floor sweeper and making toilet paper from newspaper, and, finally, were guests at a wartime wedding reception.
TimeShop turned out to be an extraordinary exercise in teaching. Most of my forty or so undergraduate volunteers each year were not history majors, and had to take a crash course in wartime Britain. We operated on the philosophy that we would never knowingly bore the kids, and I had my students read Disney’s guide to customer service, encouraging good humor and discouraging pedantry. And the kids were amazing: They were overjoyed to be asked to use their imaginations, and to be exposed to new ideas and settings. It was an extraordinary and emotional experience for us all.
In 2006, the Associated Press covered TimeShop. That year, I wrote and self-published Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, a middle grades novel about three young time travelers, two of them transplants from San Francisco, who live in a small town in the Deep South, and suddenly find themselves in wartime England. Though I assumed that nobody except friends, family, and a local audience would read it, The Snipesville Chronicles series (which ended with the fourth book earlier this year) continues to build a devoted following by word-of-mouth. Using TimeShop for inspiration, Snipesville has captured what Kirkus has called a sense of “joy and wonder” in print. I resigned my academic job when I became convinced that my novels and programs for kids and teachers were the most important work I was doing as a historian, and that I couldn’t successfully juggle them all with being an academic. Quitting academia was a leap of faith, but I have never regretted it.
It is a matter of the utmost urgency that more academic historians attempt to engage directly with the broadest possible public.
Q: What areas of history do you focus on? How do you make your programs engaging and “non-boring?”
To make what I do “non-boring”, I took what I learned from TimeShop, and turned it into novels, one-woman presentations, performances, shows, what have you. The Snipesville Chronicles bounces my reluctant young time travelers around three centuries between Britain and the Deep South, always being drawn back to a small town in England, and the small town in Georgia in which they normally live. I loved dropping them off in apparently random years, so they experience England in two World Wars, Victorian Britain, the antebellum South, and mid-eighteenth century Georgia, among others.
I chose to write time travel rather than straight historical fiction because the main characters serve as avatars for my readers as they encounter the alien worlds of even the recent past, and a country—Britain—with which none of my heroes is familiar. A mysterious history professor occasionally offers help—sort of—in that way that historians do, by asking questions, making odd observations, and generally pushing the three to come to their own conclusions. I make every effort to avoid didacticism, and I put them in awkward situations that are uncomfortable for them, but entertain my readers: Hannah’s first encounter with World War II British toilet paper is worth the price of admission alone.
My schools programs, with titles like “Could You Be A World War II Kid?” focus on the historical settings I use in the books, and I do my best to connect them to curriculum (sometimes rather creatively). Increasingly, I also teach professional development programs, using humor and empathy to encourage teachers to think historically and use primary sources. Everything I do is a performance, for which more than a decade at a party school teaching hungover freshmen at 8 a.m. prepared me very well.
I prioritize engagement, and even my teacher workshops are more successful when I seek to entertain and intrigue, rather than to instruct.
Humor has always been a huge part of my programs. Sometimes, the humor is in poor taste, because that is how kids look at the past. But humor also deepens pathos: When I have a teenager re-enact life in the trenches of World War I by crawling through fake barbed wire while two classmates chuck foam balls at him in lieu of bullets, the audience laughs. When they afterward hear the tragic story of the deaths of three young soldiers in battle, and I then reveal that they were my great-great-uncles and a cousin, the impact is all the more sobering.
I teach fifth graders about change over time using a mink stole, complete with beady eyes. I get kids developing hypotheses by asking what they would do if they found themselves in need of a bathroom while huddled in an Anderson shelter in the Blitz. I introduce the radical concept that other countries exist to kids whose state curriculum reserves world history for middle school, by talking about life in World War II England and inviting them to compare it with wartime America. We analyze primary sources by asking ourselves how we know that kids in two colonial portraits are rich.
Q: What differences and shared trends have you noticed in the teaching of history in education ranging from primary to post-secondary institutions?
The lousy job market’s silver lining is that historians are ever more qualified, and I have been very impressed by the sophistication of recent syllabi from non-flagship state universities. Yet just as history teaching in universities is better than it has ever been, we are in a race against time as powerful forces push for STEM and vocational degrees in state universities, to the growing exclusion of the humanities. One would hope that people would look around at the mess we’re in, and realize that we need more humanities education, not less.
In K12 education, a similar contradiction prevails. As schools turn toward a greater emphasis on historical thinking and literacy, an encouraging trend, teachers are finding it very hard to balance an increased emphasis on historical thinking with the laundry list parts of curricula. They are being trained to use primary sources with too little context, in addition to using the dreaded worksheets. Primary sources turned into a chore are counter-productive, and hopefully, teachers recognize this. Getting kids to think, and not turning them off history – those are the key things that need to be addressed.
Social studies and history teachers still have far too little access to professional development in history, as opposed to the education classes, and are hamstrung by atrocious curriculum. Academic historians are too often used as window dressing when curriculum is written, and are generally kept at arms’ length, which is deeply unfortunate, especially when so many of us are parents.
One encouraging trend I’ve seen is social studies/history teachers partnering with English teachers to encourage kids to read historical fiction. While Common Core emphasizes non-fiction, teachers recognize that many kids engage best with historical fiction, which is precisely why I write it.
Q: Why is it important for your audience—whether it be children, adolescents, or adults—to engage with history in a post-truth political atmosphere and in general?
It’s hardly a revelation to say we’re in trouble, but I say it as a hopeless optimist, who very much hopes that most of us have not yet stepped over the edge, and that we can pull back from the brink before events swallow us. I read recently that people who lack education are more likely to think critically based on the context of their own life experiences, and that’s always been my observation as a lower middle-class person – but that is a dangerous way to learn.
The more we give people historical context and thinking skills, the better we equip them to deal with an increasingly bewildering world.
So yes, it’s crucial that we all try to get as many people as possible to engage with history, by making the most sophisticated ideas possible available to the broadest possible audiences. The more we give people historical context and thinking skills, the better we equip them to deal with an increasingly bewildering world. I am angered and frustrated that those in positions of power and influence rush to promote STEM in public schools to the exclusion of the humanities, and history in particular.
One reason I do what I do, and in the way I do it, as a renegade historian, is that institutional change is not only incremental, but often non-existent, and I for one wasn’t prepared to wait on it. It is a matter of the utmost urgency that more academic historians attempt to engage directly with the broadest possible public, and that those who do not are actively supportive of the public historians who do. While I applaud everyone who reaches out from the academy, it is simply not enough that all who do so serve the miniscule audience we mean when we speak of “the educated public.” The profession and universities must recognize that sometimes even their best scholars and teachers find a higher calling that could have an enormous positive impact.
Q: What are some lessons that you’ve learned as an author, speaker, and presenter of “Non-Boring History” programs? What surprised you as you transitioned from traditional academia into this new arena?
When historians aim to reach the public, we tend to imagine Ivy League alumni who wear bowties. I typically think of teachers and and fifth graders in a Title I school, or women who watch Outlander and yearn for more history that appeals to them. It helps when I respect my audiences and their willingness and ability to engage. I don’t patronize. Several times, I have found myself discussing a monograph, Peter Stansky’s The First Day of the Blitz, with ten year olds, and they are absolutely fascinated.
My books reach an audience that is awesome in its diversity, in terms of age and ethnicity, and is mostly made up of kids, teens, and adult women. Although I started out in the first book writing for young people, I quickly learned that many of my readers are adult women. It’s essential that we take seriously the fact that women get their history through historical fiction, in part because few popular history books are aimed at them. One of my main characters is black, and two are upper middle-class and of uncertain ethnicity. I explore issues of race, class, and gender in the books, without ever using a phrase like “explore issues of race, class, and gender.” In general, being a woman from a lower middle class background, which was a liability in academia, is a positive advantage in my work now.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Georgia Humanities has been amazingly supportive over the years, and especially as I am expanding my reach well beyond Georgia, I appreciate this opportunity to make other humanities professionals aware of my work. All interested can learn more at AnnetteLaing.com, and I welcome your questions.