Holly Frey & Tracy V. Wilson: Ladies Behind The "Stuff You Missed In History Class" Podcast

Oh podcasts, how I love thee. Most of Ravishly loves podcasts, actually. We're always mentioning "This American Life" favorites in the staff GChat, and our EIC is a huge Marc Maron fan.

Another favorite, though, is "Stuff You Missed In History Class," a podcast about the parts of history you've yet to hear about (they are also usually the coolest parts of history). I called up the show's hosts, Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, to talk history, representation, and RuPaul.

Jenni: So the first thing I wanted to ask was: How did you guys get involved with "Stuff You Missed In History Class" (SYMIHC) and what your historical background was up to that point? Tracy, your background was originally in science, correct?

Tracy: I started working at How Stuff Works in 2005 — so long ago in Internet years! At that point, an overwhelming majority of what we did was that we wrote articles about “how stuff works,” and a lot of times that answer did boil down to science in some ways. It explains a lot of things about the world. It wasn’t until later that we started doing podcasts.

SYMIHC was established by other folks who worked at How Stuff Works and for various reasons moved on to other jobs. The show needed new hosts, and Holly and I were interested in doing it.

 My background is a lot more humanities focused than what people think of as, like, a high school history class in a lot of ways, so that’s one of the reasons why, when I'm working on episodes, I tend to really get into a holistic view of how people’s world views were affecting what was going on and that type of thing.

Holly: My degree is in theater and film studies with another concentration in English, but I kind of always had inklings that I enjoyed things about history.

Like, when I was studying English romantic literature, I realized somewhere about halfway through a really intensive course on Coleridge and Byron and Shelley that in fact I was more interested in their biographies than I really was in their actual writing. That was sort of the big clue for me. But yeah, like Tracy said, neither of us really have what you consider a classically historically-based background.

Jenni: I really wanted to ask you about the type of subject matter you choose. You often highlight a lot of women and people of color in history. I wonder, is that a conscious choice on your part or is it because so much of the stuff we actually miss in history class because it's left out of the narrative?

Tracy:  Well for me it is absolutely a conscious choice. I have sort of several buckets of episode ideas that I start from and there are the ones that are just, “This is a fun story. Let’s tell this fun story and have fun with it.” But then there are the ones that are about various groups of people who are often overlooked in mainstream history class and in a lot of ways that's where we get a whole lot of topics on people who are women or people of color; LGBT people.

And then I also have this third bucket focusing on how those same stories are really relevant to conditions in the world today, which, from my point of view, is one of the biggest failings of my public school history education. It was not focused at all on helping me understand why the world actually operates the way it does now. It was a lot more focused on sort of inspiring patriotism and giving me a general sense of things that had happened over the last couple of centuries. A lot of the things that we talked about in history class that we thought of as “over” are actually still having an effect on people’s lives today.

Jenni: We divorce ourselves from our history a lot. We talk about history as a thing that happened rather than as a thing that has affected the way that we live now. We seem to think of ourselves as in, like, this little bubble, looking down on the rest of history, and I can totally see how SYMIHC challenges that line of thinking.

Holly: I tend to be a little less analytical about it and mostly follow my gut in terms of what is really interesting to me, but I’m also keenly aware that that interest is often informed by things that are going on in the world today, so it becomes sort of a natural way of sorting that out in a similar way to Tracy — I'm just a little less cerebral about it.

This way of talking about history is super important to me. As we’ve been discussing, we can’t think about history as this other timeline that happened before and isn’t really tied to what we’re doing now because history is happening around us all the time. We are still influenced by things that came well before us and we aren't always conscious of them. It just lets you have a much clearer vision of the world around you, and you realize, 'Oh, I'm actually dealing with this situation because that thing happened in the 1800s and it affected this legislation.' And it just kind of brings it all a little bit more to life and makes people a little more conscious of the fact that we are all connected to history every minute we are alive, whether we think about it in that framework or not.

Jenni: Well to wrap things up, since SYMIHC is a podcast that was a pretty early adapter to the form, what are some of your favorite podcasts that you don’t think quite get enough attention?

Tracy: Well, a lot of the people I know listen to lots and lots of podcast have jobs that don't require the listening part of their brain to be productive, but I really can't listen to pretty much anything that has words in it while doing my job. They open the podcast all day and I don’t really get to do that! I only have a few podcasts that I listen to within a week or two and they are "Judge John Hodgman" and "Welcome to Nightvale." Usually I will save up a chunk of "The Memory Palace" — they’re often really short and I will listen to a big chunk, but otherwise I need to be able to focus on the thing that I'm researching while I'm researching it. So I don’t get to listen to them when I'm doing most of my work.

Holly: I have a commute still and I'm one of those weirdos that always want words instead of music. Like, I enjoy music, but in terms of background noise, I always want people talking. So I listen to a lot. I listen to "Communicore Weekly," which is a Disney podcast. I listen to Rupaul’s "What’s the Tee With Michelle Visage" —

Jenni: Yes! I love it!

Holly: It’s the best. It is like the most uplifting hour of your life, whenever it comes out. Like I always feel better about things when it's over. It’s heaven, the sound of the two of them laughing together is audio Prozac for me. You cannot not laugh along with them.

I also listen to "The Pandora Boxx Show," which is a little late-night for people that maybe don't like so much of the adult humor. I listen to a Star Wars podcast called "Full Of Sith" pretty religiously. One of the hosts there, Bryan Young, was our guest at our first live show in New York, and I've been fortunate enough to be a guest on their show a couple times to talk about my various Star Wars obsessions. And then it doesn't really need any help in terms of like people are listening to it, but I am also a devotee of "Star Talk." Those are my big favorites.

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