A Conversation with Carol Reardon (part six)

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Reardon, Carol(part six in a series)

To help commemorate Women’s History Month, I’m talking this week with Carol Reardon. In yesterday’s segment, she talked about ways that she has learned, as an academic and a public historian, to reach wider and more diverse audiences. Many buffs, for instance, are familiar with her contributions to Gary Gallagher’s collection of essay books about battles in the eastern theater.

Chris Mackowski: I think about some of your essays in Gallagher’s books, where your writing was tuned to wider audiences beyond fellow academics.

Carol Reardon: Well, you have to remember where those books came from. All those Gallagher campaign books started out as presentations at Penn State Mont Alto Civil War conferences. Gary had hosted this conference at the Mont Alto campus, which is just about 25 miles from Gettysburg. In June of the year, he would host a program on  the campaign of the year, and we would always give lectures on the first day and a half, and then there were two days out on the field. We would have about two busloads of our new best friends come down and join us—and these were not people who wanted to hear academic papers. That’s not who they were. They came from all walks of life. When you’re dealing with that audience, you have to change your approach.

So it’s not just my essay, but if you read all the essays in those books, they all have a slightly different tone. They aren’t all hardcore academic. The lectures we gave became the essays that you see. So in that case, we were tailoring them a little bit to a broader audience. Still, the scholarship in those essays across the board is really solid.

Chris: Yeah, oh yeah. They’re fantastic.

Carol: There’s some really good work in those volumes. But you know, in our profession, an edited volume gets kind of a “big whoop” that tends to ignore the quality of the individual pieces inside. But that probably is another reason why I tended to write that way, just because I knew who was most likely to read it.

Chris: And when you say “big whoop,” it’s funny because, having had the privilege to do a number of American Battlefield Trust programs with you, I’ve seen firsthand that you just have a wild, crazy fan base. I don’t know how else to put it. Viewers are like, “More Carol,” “We love Carol.” So, obviously, you have found a way to connect with audiences in a way that is meaningful to them, and I think that is so admirable.

Carol: Someone once asked me how I could function successfully in a world where I was mostly the outlier—and that could be as a woman in military history, it could be as a civilian in an Army War College classroom, you know, whatever it happened to be. And I always attributed it to three different things: Number one, I’m darned good at what I do, and that actually covers a whole lot of territory. Secondly, I have a sense of humor. All of us have sat through way too many lectures, even by prominent historians where they don’t crack a smile. They don’t let you see the person. You see a scholar. You know, I’d just rather let me be me. I have a sense of humor, so I let it come out, and a lot of times that’s what they’re responding to.

The third one isn’t always relevant, but I discovered early on, especially if I’m dealing with a largely male audience, my ability to talk football and baseball usually helps me a lot. God forbid if it’s basketball or hockey season. Then I’m dead.  But the ability to talk sports reasonably well has helped me on more than one occasion.

Chris: One of the other things I think you’re really talented at—and this is, again, going back to the Trust’s Facebook Lives—is that you have a real talent for whipping out the single fact or bit of context at just the right moment that really illuminates whatever discussion we happen to be having. You come up with one little bit of insight that really just couldn’t be more spot-on for the discussion.

Carol: I think that goes back to an article that probably all of us in military history have read, probably early on in our career, and that was Michael Howard’s “The Use and Abuse of Military History.” He asserted that when you’re studying history, study it in depth, breadth, and context. You have to do all three to really say that you have mastery over a certain subject.

A lot of times when we’re sitting out on McPherson’s Ridge or on Culp’s Hill on a Trust program, we begin to drill down in depth. A lot of people who watch really love that depth. We always love those little factoids that come out when we’re sitting there coming up with stories. But a lot of times, especially toward the end, what you have to do is somehow pull is all together and fit it into a larger picture and answer the question “So what?” or “This is important because . . .” It provides a little bit greater context for what we’ve been doing. I always love when we drill down deep and start telling great stories about this, that, and the other thing, but there are people who are watching us or listening to us who are not experts, who are listening to this and going, “Okay, what’s this all about? What does this mean?” And then I usually figure, “I’d better provide that before we move on to somewhere else.”

I also require that of my students. When I give them an identification question, I say, “I want the who, what, when, where, and why, and then your last sentence begins with “and this is important because . . .” Give me the significance. Probably that’s what’s triggering all this.

Chris: Well, those additions always seem to be spot-on.

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Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up our conversation with Carol by asking her for a little advice. “If this isn’t fun for you,” she warns, “you are in the wrong business.”

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