Review: UnTextbooked, a student-led podcast

Rebecca Jackson Reviews , ,

UnTextbooked is a student-produced podcast which released its first episode in October 2020. On their website, UnTextbooked describes themselves as “A history podcast for the future. Brought to you by teen changemakers who are looking for answers to big questions. We interview famous historians who have some of the answers.”

UnTextbooked is an initiative of got history?, a US-based organisation that seeks to “foster inspired civic engagement and develop the skills and mindsets we need to tackle the challenges of today”. got history? is a partner organisation of EuroClio - and since 2021 an associated member.

Season one of this podcast contains fifteen episodes. Each episode features a different “producer” who interviews a guest historian. The interviews are mainly centred on a particular book of the guest, though as the episode continues the discussion naturally extends beyond just the book. Each episode lasts between fifteen to thirty-five minutes. 

The producers who lead the interviews are all high school or first year university students, and most have a personal connection or identity tied to their podcast’s topic. For example, in the episode “Why do we forget the cruelty of the British Empire?”, Hassan Javan, whose grandparents grew up under British imperial rule in modern-day Pakistan, interviews historian John Newsinger about his book The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire.

UnTextbooked is not a simple student project but a professional production, with clean editing, mixing, and appropriately cool and modern sounding theme music. It was named a top pick by the Spotify Next Wave awards, and one of the podcast founders received the prize of “Global Teen Leader” for their initiative.

This podcast is a recommended listen for history educators and their students. It offers a fresh take on well-worn history narratives, and can also offer inspiration to reexamine histories local to them. 

While UnTextbooked’s topics start with a historical focus, each episode aims to take the discussion into the present day. Many episodes reveal ‘forgotten history’, such as the case of Claudette Colvin who refused to give up her bus seat in the segregated American South, months before the famous case of Rosa Parks. Colvin, an unmarried and pregnant teenager, was seen to lack the personal credibility for an effective civil rights campaign. This sparks discussion as to why the case of Colvin remains largely unknown, and about attitudes towards “respectability” in civil rights protests in the US today.

The topics explored in season are mainly centred on the history of the United States. Episodes recommended for their more global focus are those on the Golden Age of Piracy, the coup of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, how the British Empire is remembered, and Western attitudes towards the veil in Islam.

History teachers may want to use UnTextbooked’s example to inspire their own students to reach out to other historians and authors, and ask their own questions. In the conditions of the global pandemic, many historians are becoming even more active online and participating in online interviews and panel discussions. As UnTextbooked shows, renowned authors were glad to have an interview from a young reader, and appreciated their enthusiasm and thoughtful questions.

Students could, like UnTextbooked, find a book that speaks to them and then reach out to the author to ask for an interview. This interview would not necessarily need to be recorded and edited into a podcast format. From the process of the interview alone, students could benefit from interrogating their chosen book and topic closely, and share their experiences with colleagues. However if making a podcast is the goal, many free tools exist for audio editing, such as Audacity.

You can listen to UnTextbooked on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and other podcast players. UnTextbooked is making plans already for season two, and has an active fundraiser to support the show.