Robert Cassanello and a Digital Public History

Dr. Robert Cassanello is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Florida. He describes himself as a “social historian interested in public history.” He has published several books including To Render Invisible: Jim Crow and Public Life in New South Jacksonville (2013) Migration and the Transformation of the Southern Workplace since 1945 with Colin J. Davis (2010) and Florida’s Working-Class Past: Current Perspectives on Labor, Race, and Gender from Spanish Florida to the New Immigration with Melanie Shell-Weiss (2011). As a curator, he has designed exhibitions such as The Long History of the Civil Rights Movement in Florida and From Kin to Kant: Turpentine Culture in Central Florida. He has also produced numerous media projects such as the films The Committee and Filthy Dreamers with his UCF colleague Dr. Lisa Mills.

Beyond these accomplishments, I talked with Cassanello because of his engagement with podcasts. While podcasts are widely produced and consumed, their place in the Digital Humanities landscape is not clear. Are they digital humanities projects or media projects? This question looms large as the push for greater “public engagement” is weighed against the time and resources necessary to produce these projects. Cassanello’s A History of Central Florida Podcast, a 50-episode series, captures Cassanello’s vision for a digital public history and, in doing so, pushes us to consider how podcasting might fit within the digital landscape.


Podcast, Media, Social History, Material Culture, Public History

The Conversation

Chambliss: So, Robert Cassanello, thank you for joining me.

Cassanello: Thank you for hosting me. I shouldn’t say thank you for hosting me. Thank you for having me. You’re the host.

Chambliss: Thanks for making the time for this recording. I’m going to start with us [how I start] with everybody. How do you define Digital Humanities?

Cassanello: Well, really broadly for a variety of reasons. In the broadest sense and as a historian, I always like to look at the long durée, and I use that tongue-in-cheek, not literally. But, [when] you think about the digital and the digital age, this is really the moment for people who were contemporaries to the printing press in some sense. The printing press created this accessibility to knowledge and a way of not only preserving knowledge, but [disseminating] knowledge and interpreting knowledge and creating new knowledge that just hadn’t been available before the printing press. And I think the digital is analogous to that in some ways, as well as a leap to something different from what we might refer to as an analog or analog way of doing things. In that sense, the Digital Humanities is sort of [in] the employ of some digital method or digital process to interpret or disseminate the humanities. I know there’s a lot of different definitions out there, but that’s the one I feel comfortable with. Now, for me, as a historian, I gravitate towards Digital History and, specifically, digital public history. If you want [you can] consider it a subfield of the Digital Humanities, digital public history, because I’m really interested in the ways in which you [can] employ the digital within the realm of practicing public history.

Chambliss: I think that’s a really interesting answer because, as you well know, people’s definition of Digital Humanities varies widely. But as a historian, you are calling attention to an ideological strand that used to be more prominent in the sense that people like Dan Cohen have taught and used to talk about the specific things historians do when they’re doing digital work. I think it does connect to this point you make about public history. And so, sort of following up with that, is there a kind of uniqueness to your digital work as a historian you can see that’s distinct from other disciplines doing digital work?

Cassanello: Yeah, I mean, in some very stark ways, I would say I don’t drill down into digital, if that makes sense. I’m more on the surface level and digital is just a means to do something I couldn’t do without the digital. And what I mean by that is, for me, as a practitioner of public history, the digital affords me essentially a global stage, right? So, I’ve been really concerned in my own work with ways to reach global audiences I wouldn’t have access to in the 1980s and maybe through most of the 1990s. So, that’s sort of the ground I’m trying to plow in the public Digital History realm.

Chambliss: Okay, that’s an important point because I think it sets up my next question. One of the reasons I wanted to talk with you is because I really admire your work as a podcaster. I would freely admit that some of the things you’ve done with podcasts really inspired my own engagement with podcasts and what I think of as your signature project, whether or not you think of it that way…is The History of Central Florida Podcast, which is a 50[-episode] podcast series that, I think, was innovative in a number of ways because it used local artifacts across a number of cultural institutions to tell local history, Florida history, but also [to] really tell a kind of global story. And I’d really like you to talk a bit about the origin of that project and how that project captures your thinking about digital public history and your work as a historian.

Cassanello: Well, first, I would dispute that it captured local history because our intent was never to capture local history. And so, I would kind of put that aside. However, that project, The History of Central Florida Podcast project, was something I designed with about 10 graduate students in a podcasting class. There were a few questions that came out of that class directly related to the practice of digital public history. One was the idea of whether an exhibit can exist in podcast form. Right? And that’s a really kind of [a] simple question. Can you take the principles of curatorial practices [with a podcast]? Each episode is based on one or more objects from museums in central Florida where the local comes in. Our idea was to say, “Okay, let’s take these objects, repurpose them, put them into a podcast form, and see the ways that represents the practice of public history.”

And, of course, it couldn’t be done without the digital, right? I couldn’t have done this project in 1980 because there wasn’t access to the Internet in that way or [to] any of these other things. The second, which is what you kind of highlighted in your question, was whether we could create global stories. One of the things I impressed upon the students in this kind of production sense was to say, “Okay, you’re going to write scripts. You’re going to interpret material culture. You’re going to have to find a narrative for your stories. And I don’t want any [of] that dependent upon local history. I said this in class, “I want someone who’s in Portland, Oregon to be able to check out your episode and not have to know anything or be connected at all to central Florida.”

It has to have a central human story. You know, that it’s sort of transnational in that way. I even expanded that to say someone in Tokyo should be able to watch your podcast and not feel this is local history. That was a challenge I placed upon the students. I think they’ve done it extraordinary [in] succeeding with that project. We worked on a project from 2012 until the summer of 2015. We finished it and posted them all. The easy part of the question to answer was the digital public history question because, obviously, if we successfully created the podcast and people liked it, then we were able to produce a public history project [in] podcast form. That was really simple.

But the global part was much harder to test. And what we did in 2015. This was actually kind of a fluke because two weeks after we finished production, iTunes went down for, I think, three months and only 20 of the 50 episodes were available. That kind of frustrated me. What I did is I posted all of the episodes onto a webpage housed at the UCF library where I am, the University of Central Florida. The library had a subscription to this kind of digital commons site that [is] pretty common now with university libraries. I was the first to put anything up there really. And we put the 50 episodes up there, curated it on its own page so at least it was accessible. If someone did a Google search for a history of central Florida podcasts, all 50 episodes would appear there while they weren’t [on] iTunes and, obviously, we left them up there for the past, you know, five plus years and they’re still currently up there today.

What that gave us was analytics. And what I learned—I actually just looked at the data last week—[was] there’s almost 2,000 podcast downloads on that website and that’s just on that website. That’s not counting iTunes or the other places where it exists. It’s in all the different podcasts catchers. It’s [on this place] called the Showcase of Text, Archives, Research & Scholarship (STARS), it’s just on a STARS website, so people are going to STARS just to download the website. Of those users, there’s almost 2,000, like 1,900, I think a little bit over that. And a little 1,000 of them are coming from the United States. Most of them not from Florida, interestingly enough. But outside of that thousand, the 900+ are all over the world: China, Russia, Latin America, Africa. People are just consuming it all over the world. We have to assume that to have this, [we have] what in communication parlance is like “a listening public.”

We have a global listening public to this podcast intentionally [and] we wanted to create these global stories and subsume the local. And I think this data gives us evidence that we were successful in that. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I think there was like 200 plus downloads in China in a few of their cities. And now, you got to think, well, people in China are listening to this, then they must be getting something from it. And I can tell each user is listening to multiple episodes. It’s not like a user listens to one episode and then leaves. But you know, on average, they’re listening not to all 50, but you know, anywhere from 10 to 15 is what I’m seeing all around the world.

People are listening to it. People are checking it out and they’re not listening to in sequence; they’re picking and choosing based on the descriptions. At this moment in time, and this is where we get into the digital humanities part of this project, I’m actually working on an article where I have all the data of the downloads and the locations all the way down to, not necessarily a street level, but a neighborhood level. Like, I could tell you what neighborhood in China downloaded what episodes and I’m going to put them all into a database and then figure out what narratives [and] episodes interested people around the world the most and what parts of the world and things like that. I’m trying to kind of figure out who this listening public is as best I can with the data I have.

Chambliss: That’s really interesting because I think in your answer, you touched on what I know is an ideological standpoint, an important point for you that the local history or Florida can be understood in a broader global context of material, cultural contexts, right? And this was, at some level, a goal for this project. And as a digital humanities project, we talked a lot in this podcast about how to judge a project like a podcast. And, in particular, I think podcasts are really interesting because they have not had the same cache as other kinds of digital humanities projects.

I know this has been something you’ve been thinking about in the context of review and you’re very active with H-Net. You’re on the board [of] H-Net or have been on the board of H-Net. I want to ask you about that process as a practitioner, [as] someone who has made podcasts and other media projects and [as] someone who is advocating for some sort of review ideology or review framework, why is that important and where does that fit in terms of the validity of a digital humanities practice for you?

Cassanello:  A couple things there [in] what you bring up and I have to kind of do this as a disclosure. I’ve worked on a variety of podcasts, not just this one. But you had referred to this one [as] what you [called] my seminal work or something like that. I’m agreeing with you, that’s how I look at it, too. I’m saying we’re in agreement on that. And this represented something very different from other podcast projects I worked on, which is why reviewing it and giving it some kind of academic evaluation was so important for that project. Because, for me, this project represented a new body of knowledge, right? Because, if you break down what we do as scholars, what we do is we produce bodies of knowledge, presumably for good; we produce original bodies of knowledge. So, for me, this podcast project was an original body of knowledge because those people who work on state local history have this sort of determination to say, “I’m going to break the mold. And I’m going to show how you can do state local history that isn’t provincial, that isn’t localized so much that it only appeals to the people who are in and around that community.” That’s what this podcast did, it made a statement and made a thesis.

At the core, there [is] this human story to history that transcends geographic boundaries. For that reason, when we finished this project, this [was] actually a four-year process to get it reviewed by journals and it was positively reviewed in the Journal of American history and in Public Historian. It took me four years just to get those two reviews and I was exhausted and [stopped] there. But, at the same time, I had started this network called H-Podcast with H-Net, which I was involved in because I really did [see] there [are] academics doing podcasts and they’re trying to come to terms with the form, and we need the space to dialogue and exchange ideas and things. And so, that’s why I helped create H-Podcast with a few other people. Now, to return to your question about reviews and things. For me, [of] all of the podcasts I’ve worked on over the years, I only felt that A History of Central Florida merited review because the other ones were just sort of interview shows and I was just talking to people.

And, to me, that doesn’t necessarily represent new knowledge but it’s just kind of like engaging an audience with knowledge. [Maybe] there [is] synthesis, if you want to think of it in those term, as opposed to production of new knowledge. To me, there are podcast projects that do the very thing that we did with The History of Central Florida Podcast that produced new knowledge. And I think those projects were being overlooked, even within the realms of Digital Humanities and Digital Public History and Digital History, to [such] a large extent that people weren’t looking at these podcasts [as] projects, and they probably don’t represent the bulk or the majority of podcasts that are done by academics. But I think there are these gems that exist that need to be reviewed and considered and placed within the context of other podcast projects and things like that. One of the reasons we are launching a podcast reviews program is to achieve that very goal because, when I finished this History of Central Florida Podcast, there was nothing for me to plug into. I felt like this was the equivalent of an article or book that we worked on. And, if someone watched all 50 episodes, there’s stuff in there they’re not going to get from a JSTOR search or from their library. It’s just in that podcast. And the podcast had a thesis and the episodes all work together, it was holistically a piece of original research.

Chambliss: In that formula, you say the podcast has a thesis, what was the thesis?

Cassanello: The thesis was that there was a central human history that can be understood through the production of material culture. Because that was the other part of each episode, too, the material culture part, right? It’s like this global history narrative companion with material culture, and the material culture part we did was based on everyday objects. We weren’t looking at presidential objects or governors’ objects or politicians’ objects, or very rarely did we look at something from the affluent side of things. We really were looking at [it] from a social history perspective. [Like], how do you take something that’s an everyday object and how is that a text for you to interpret the lives of people at a place at a point in time and how do you do it that centers it within a sort of common human condition? That was the other thing that was a part of it. And I think that’s what the thesis of [the] podcast is. So, presumably, someone who watches most of the episodes or all the episodes could go to their local museum, wherever it may be, even if it’s in Beijing, China, and they can employ that same process that they learned from the podcast to the objects they’re looking at in their local museums.

Chambliss: This gets at a number of issues around Digital Humanities that [are] worth considering because your sense that this project History of Central Florida Podcast created new knowledge was an important one connected to why you thought it needed to be reviewed but then immediately becomes a question. As you say, it was a class that you taught. In that context, there are 50 episodes. It’s a massive project, 50 episodes. Are you the editor? Are you the author? Are you the contributor?

Cassanello: I’m the executive producer and the students are episode producers. Now, I also produced episodes. I don’t remember how many, three or four maybe I produced myself because I wanted to give them a template to work with. I think I did…I don’t remember which one, but I did a few [early on] just to show them this is how I would do it. And then they worked on their own. And they were producers, they were writers, and they worked on each other’s, too. If you think [of it as] a production company as opposed to a class, each episode almost had its own little production company. Students would gravitate towards each other, help each other with scripts and recording [and] things like this. There are very few dedicated roles.

One thing we haven’t mentioned is that the podcast series is a video podcast. You actually can see and there’s visual cues and things in the podcast. I had one dedicated student who took all the photos of the objects because he was a professional photographer and he worked in that capacity of taking pictures of curated materials behind plexiglass. He had that specific skillset. We didn’t know until we were in class and he says, “Oh, I can take all these pictures because I know how to shoot through plexiglass.” He was the dedicated photographer and he worked on his own episodes too, but he just had an added role in addition to the episodes he worked on. And then there was another student I trained in the class to do the final editing, the final video editing. He and I shared that role because sometimes I would do final video editing. Sometimes I would give it to him. It wasn’t just one person doing it, but I trained him in the software. And then, he quickly got up to my level of editing, so he and I just worked through all the episodes until the end.

Chambliss: Correct me if I’m wrong, the podcast can be consumed without the video component. Or do you have to have the video component for the podcast to work?

Cassanello: They were written in audio form. The video is just kind of an added thing that accentuates the narrative in a variety of ways.

Chambliss: And, for you, as the executive producer and the person who is setting the intellectual tone as you were doing this project, are all those scripts a part of the STARS site, like the library site? Did you archive all the material related to the project?

Cassanello: I have a master archive of everything. And I’ve already talked to Special Collections and University of Central Florida and they’re going to house the archives for me in case anyone wants to research in it and hear the full interviews we did [or] read the scripts or anything like that. I’m going to set it up in a way that you have to be in the Special Collections to see it. I don’t want that stuff disseminated publicly or widely on the Internet, but that stuff eventually will be available if anybody, say someone’s researching podcasting and they’re interested in that podcast and they wanted to come and see how the mechanics of it work, they’d be able to research in the archive I created for it.

Chambliss: And so, coming out of this as a person who’s developing an idea with you—and you say you helped develop H-Podcast—correct me if I’m wrong, [but] there’s a review system you’ve been researching, like the process of reviews. Is that system set up? Is the review process set up now for these kinds of mediated projects for H-Net?

Cassanello: Yeah. I mean, it’s a staff thing. I’m building towards reviewing digital projects with H-Net. The H-Podcast podcast review system is like a trial balloon in the sense of reviewing born digital projects if you want to think about it in those ways. We haven’t announced it yet but, in the coming days on H-Podcast, we will be releasing guidelines for reviewing a podcast. We have [the guidelines] already written [and] they’ve been approved by our advisory board and the VP of Research and Publications. We just haven’t made it public yet. We’re looking to see how this goes in a year or two and then figure out a way that we can then expand to not only review podcasts, but review other Digital Humanities work and Digital History work that, again, is digitally born and exists only in digital form. It’s not a book [or] article form.

Chambliss: Right. Okay. Ultimately, this is about that digital-born intellectual artifact, having a space so it can be reviewed. Because, right now, the only venue that does reviews of DH projects is the Journal of American History.

Cassanello: No, there’s more now. The Journal American History does, Public Historian does if it has a public history angle to it. So, they do a lot of websites and things like that that are repositories for items. There’s also a new online journal called Reviews in Digital Humanities. I think I might not have the exact title right. But they’re doing essentially a journal that looks at a variety of different digital humanities projects within one issue. I’m not sure if they do a thematic. I just saw the first one and there’s been at least one podcast review done by an academic publisher in Canada. They essentially did a peer review. Someone worked on a podcast project and this academic publisher essentially did a peer review of it and released the peer review. And the peer review actually had, I think, 12 or 15 people involved, you know, [a] pretty high number. It wasn’t just like one or two people who were peer reviewing this podcast. It was quite a variety of people from different fields and they were given a questionnaire. They answered the questionnaire and then the questionnaire was made public. And if anyone’s interested in seeing the peer review of this podcast project, they could go to the website and they could read all about it. For that person who produced the podcast, it was, I think, a single producer, she could go to her home institution and say, “Here’s the peer review of my podcast. I want to treat it as original scholarship.” And she would at least have that, whether her colleagues accepted or not [is] a different thing, but at least she has the document.

Chambliss: Right. I guess that gets at my last question. I know that, in some ways, you’ve thought a lot about this question of what a digital public humanities practice is and why it is. The why of it, what’s the why of digital public humanities? I would be interested, having gone through this process with the podcast, having researched the idea of review through H-Net, what’s the value in your opinion of a DH practice for scholars? I think there’s a question here about Digital Humanities as a public practice, which I think at some level is one of the ways Digital Humanities has value in academia. It’s something that makes things public, but then there’s this other element that I think you hint at very directly in the sense that, as a historian who does public history, you see X value, is that fair?

Cassanello: Yeah. I mean, you know, this actually goes back to when I was in graduate school, right. I entered graduate school at the very time of the history culture wars of the early 1990s. The Enola Gay, the Common History Standards, all this stuff that just got historians all up in arms about how the average person, the person on the street, was engaging history. It became this partisan divide early on before partisan America, in some sense. And I remember being in graduate school at that moment when it first started, and I think the lessons we learned initially were wrong. When I was in graduate school, what we were told and how we interpreted those culture wars was that history had become locked in this ivory tower and no longer was engaged with the person on the street. I remember people would pull out Richard Hofstadter, [who] wrote for the academic and also wrote for the person on the street. And the average person on the street would have consumed his books and all this other stuff, and that doesn’t happen anymore because we’re all esoteric.

And we’re all writing [things that are] too theory based, and postmodernism is turning off the average reader to history and all this other stuff. And these were meant to explain the culture wars, which I don’t agree with. I mean, I was indoctrinated in that thinking, so, for a while, I thought that that was true, but I don’t believe that anymore. However, one of the things I took away as a lesson was that there’s value to engage, to have that Richard Hofstadter, if you want to use that model. I was always had that in the back of my mind.

Now, I went into a grad program that did not have a public history program and I didn’t even know the words “public history” when I was a grad student. But I knew I wanted to engage the public. I just didn’t know there was a field where you could do that until I got out. Once I got out and went to my first job, which was at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama, the first day I stepped on campus I said, “How do I engage? How do I meet the public?” And I don’t know that I was successful [in] those early years, but it was always kind of like a driving force for me. I always thought it was part of my scholarship and part of who I was and who I am as an academic. That had always been there.

When the digital part came along because of this digital turn or whatever you want to call it, I [didn’t] have to engage with [just] my neighbor. I [didn’t] have to engage with the museum down the street. I can engage with the world. That changed everything and put things in a place I really never thought [about before]. I wasn’t the only one, obviously the Internet had everyone thinking the same thing I was thinking. For me, it’s [driven] me and made me think about my place as a digital public historian in a way I don’t think I would have if I was a luddite or if I was born 50 years earlier. Maybe I would have went to my local museum and worked on an in-person exhibit for people in the local community or something like that. That might’ve been me in the 1950s. But fortunately, I came along during this time [and] was able to harness digital public history in this way.

I’ll sort of end this here and there’s things I tell students because oftentimes we talk and have conversations about Digital History, digital public history, and things like this. What does it mean to be digital? What is the value of digital? I tell my students, “At some point in time, there won’t be any digital historians because we’re all going to be digital historians and that is going to be what we are doing and there’s going to be no distinction.” No one is going to have raise their hand and say I’m a digital historian. It’s just going to be second nature. And I see it in myself, quite frankly, because for lack of a better term, I hate to use the word “digital native,” because I think it doesn’t exist. But I consider myself an analog person or a person immersed in analog because, when I was trained in college, everything was analog. I went to the library and took a book down from the shelf and I looked up how to find a journal article. I didn’t go to a database and there’s a difference. There’s a methodological and investigative difference in having the ease of your research there. I’m working on a book-length project on the right to vote in Florida. And I don’t remember when I first realized this, but it was about maybe a year and a half ago, that all of my research—100% of my primary research—is digital. I got no photocopies. I got no primary resource books I’m consulting. It is 100% all [digital] research. Now, I obviously have books on my bookshelf that are secondary, but all my primary research is in digital form. And it made me think, what does that mean for this project? Because my earlier project on Jacksonville was the opposite, it was all photocopies and printouts. And I have a filing cabinet, [a] four-drawer filing cabinet of my Jacksonville research, filled with all of the research. Yet, my research for this current project is all on a thumb drive, all of it backed up. Don’t panic people, there’s a backup. And what it made me think about is: how does this ease of research impact me as a scholar now? And I think it does in a variety of ways because it brings the entire collection home to you accessible at any point time.

So, imagine I could go back to Richard Hofstadter, sit in the archives with a legal pad, [and] had to write what he thought he was reading. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at a documents months later, years later, and [thought] that’s not what I thought it said when I first saw it. So, how does Richard Hofstadter know what he read in certainty off a legal pad? You see what I’m saying? Like, now, all of a sudden, having this stuff on my computer accessible at any time—not only that, but many things [are] word searchable—is making me interpret this material in a way I would not have been able to interpret this material if I wrote this book in 1980.

Chambliss: We all live in the consequences of a digital world, regardless of whether or not we’re producing “digital things.” Yeah, that’s a great place to end it. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about your digital journey, I appreciate it.

Cassanello: Thank you for having me.


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