Teaching The Last Archive

People have asked about teaching The Last Archive, especially during the Covid-19 crisis. We are here to help! There’s lots in the show that can be used in college or high school classes, and even some middle school classes. In particular, The Last Archive complies with the curricular guidelines for teaching history in high school. We’ve prepared some resources for both students and teachers.

Q&A For Students

What is this show about?

The Last Archive is a show about how we know things. It asks big questions about knowledge, evidence and proof. Each episode attempts to solve a mystery. But since The Last Archive is also a show about history, it’s about the history of how we know things, and how that changes over time.

How do we know things?

Listen to season one to find out! Here in The Last Archive, we really believe in old-fashioned empiricism: documentary proof, observation, scientific experimentation, eyewitnesses, corroboration. The real deal. Most of the rules of evidence, in all kinds of realms of knowledge, come, originally, from the law. We talk about that a bit in Episode 2. But, really, we talk about that all season. How do you know things? How do you find something out? How do you verify it? What rules do you use? Where do those rules come from? Oh wait, we are supposed to be answering the questions, not asking them. 

Is this a history show?

Yes! There’s a lot of history in this podcast. The host is a history professor! She can’t help it! But there’s also a lot of other stuff in this podcast. Because history isn’t just something that’s … out there, or something creaking and dusty and ancient. It’s everywhere, and tied together with everything else: science, the news, politics, literature, your breakfast, YouTube, TikTok. Everything has a history, so history is actually everything. That also means, it’s hard to understand much of anything, now, without understanding its history. We have a big poster inside The Last Archive that says that. EVERYTHING=HISTORY. 

What’s your evidence? 

If you want to know, “Hey, how does the podcast know what it says it knows?” Usually, you can find out on the episode pages on the show’s website. We’ve posted historical documents and photographs—stuff we found in the archives—to show you our sources. “Put your cards on the table!” is a good rule, when writing history, or producing a podcast about history. If you think we’ve forgotten a few cards, let us know, and we’ll throw them down!

Is this stuff true? 

Sometimes, in telling a story about something that happened in the past, we use what’s called “archival sound”—actual recordings made in the past. Whenever we can find it, that’s what we use. So: vinyl albums, cassette tapes, TV shows, FBI surveillance recordings. Sometimes, though, there is no archival sound, either because the story we’re telling happened before people figured out how to record sound, or else because the thing we’re talking about wasn’t recorded, or because it was recorded, but the recording has since disappeared. In those cases, if we were able to find historical documents that tell us what happened—like, say, the transcript of a Congressional hearing, or the record of a trial—we hired actors, the Foolproof Players, to read that stuff and we recorded it. Then we “treated” the tape to make it sound as though it’s old. We’re not trying to trick anyone: It’s clear on the episode web pages where we got the stuff we used to make the re-creations. Do you think this is OK? If everything our Foolproof Players say comes from a historical document, but the recording is something we made, how “real” are those recordings?  If you were making the rules, what rules would you make? One of our big rules: We’re not trying to pass anything off as real that’s fake. Still, we’re trying to make it sound as real as it can. What would you do?

Why are all the stories from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Don’t you know any other history?

We do know more history! You do, too! The reason the show is mainly about the last hundred years, well, there are two reasons. First, a set of ideas about truth and evidence started to topple about a century ago. And second, the recording of sound really only began to be widespread about a century ago. If you were starting a history podcast, what period of history would you want to talk about? If you’re telling the history of something, you want to tell the part where stuff happens, where change happens. The last hundred years is where truth got murdered. Or maybe it isn’t? But that was our gambit. What would yours be?

Is there really a Last Archive?

Um, no. It’s, like, a bedroom closet. With a big microphone in it, and some old winter coats. Mice-gnawed boxes. I think I lost a hat in there once.

Tips For Teachers

Integrating the podcast into a curriculum

The type of historical inquiry and analysis that drives The Last Archive is consistent with the national History Standards urged by the National Center for History in the Schools, at UCLA, including the emphasis on the learning of historical thinking and the practice of historical methods. The podcast is also easily integrated with the historical thinking skills promoted by the Stanford History Education Group.

Everything we do on The Last Archive also lines up with the History disciplinary standards elaborated by the National Council of Social Studies. The Last Archive’s specific investigation of sources and evidence and the rules of evidence is driven by the same framework identified by the NCSS’s broader, social studies-wide emphasis on evidence and sources.

Some Ideas for Activities

  • Make a list of the rules of evidence you use over the course of an ordinary day. Here are some examples! If my brother tells me something, I always check with my sister. I have gotten pranked too many times by texts from my friend Satchel so I pretty much wait and see when he texts me something. If I want to know something, I usually go to Wikipedia first, even though my teachers tell me not to
  • Pick apart an episode: What is its argument? What’s the evidence used to support that argument? Do you buy it?
  • Read the primary sources we used in our show and analyze them for yourself—did we miss anything? Do you read these sources differently? Could you make a totally different argument using this same set of sources? 
    • Think of different sources you might look for to tell the story in the episode. How would you find them? Might they lead you to a different argument?
    • Choose one of the primary sources we used in The Last Archive and analyze it for yourself. How does that source help you answer the guiding question of that episode?  Sample Primary Source Analysis Worksheet.
  • What will be the most important primary sources when the COVID-19 episode of The Last Archive comes out in fifty years? Pick a few documents (could be journals, TV or radio news clips, drawings, tweets, newspaper articles) you think we will want to keep in the Archive.
  • Make a timeline of the last century and populate it with moments when the world of knowledge changed, in some big way. What forces drive change?
  • Do you have an archive? What’s in it? Make an inventory! Ok, back up: What is an archive? Write a definition. See if you can figure out what our definition is. Is yours the same as ours? (A tip: you could make a list of all the things we say we have found inside the Last Archive.)
  • If you don’t have an archive, this is a good time to create one!
    • Gather artifacts that document your experience of the coronavirus pandemic. History is everything, so consider the physical artifacts that represent your experience: city public health posters, grocery store receipts, photographs of closed businesses, or of people practicing social distancing. How would you archive this moment in history?
    • Libraries and museums like the Brooklyn Historical Society are collecting digital and physical artifacts. Check if your local library, museum, or historical society is collecting similar artifacts, or start collecting your own!
  • Or, you could add stuff to the Last Archive! Can you find any additional sources that would help us answer one of the guiding questions to one of our episodes? Where would you start looking? Also, if you find something, let us know!
    • Check out one of the following public archives and see if you can hunt down another clue. How does that source help you answer the guiding question of that episode?  Sample Primary Source Analysis Worksheet.
  • If you were to invent a “lie detector,” what form would it take? Would it be a machine? An app? A jury of your peers? Design one!
    • Pick something in the news, something controversial. Make a list of sources you could look to to find out if it’s true. Then rank those sources in order of most credible to least credible. Then make a list of methods you might use to evaluate those sources. Then decide whether that list is really a sequence, a set of steps you’d need to take. This is probably a crazy-interesting list! Ask some questions about your list, and take a look at other people’s lists. Are these sources you’ve listed using the same foundation of facts? What different kinds of arguments are they making? How are they making them?
  • Interview a family member and submit your work for an oral history project. Everything has a history. AND SO DOES EVERYONE! Me, I like the motto of the Southern Oral History Program: “You don’t have to be famous for your life to be history.” Oral histories are invaluable sources for historians to learn from previously unheard people. They fill out the historical record. Before you get started, ask yourself some questions. What about a person’s life makes it history? Where do the events in each of our lives intersect with bigger events, in everyone’s life? That’s one of the weird things about this moment in time, the COVID-19 pandemic: Somehow people get a sense of how much more closely tied together all of our histories are. How will you decide which member of your family to interview? The person who’s the best talker? The person who tells the best jokes? The person who’s travelled farthest? Those are your decisions. Historians make those decisions all the time. And then other historians use those interviews all the time. You might consider using StoryCorps Connect, a new app developed by StoryCorps to do long distance interviews during the pandemic.
  • Produce your own mini-episode of The Last Archive. We had a lot of fun creating the audio world of The Last Archive. We would be so happy if you would send them to us at [email protected]! Here are some resources to help you create your own podcast:
  • Free advice on how to make podcasts:
  • Historical audio: Internet Audio Archive
  • Fun sound effects: www.freesound.org 

Guiding Questions for Teaching The Last Archive

Every time we post a new episode of The Last Archive, we post links to our key sources on our Episode pages. Here we’ll also post some questions that might help start a class discussion, or keep one going!

Episode 1: The Clue of the Blue Bottle

Guiding Question: What is a fact?

Additional Questions:

  • Where does trial by jury come from?
  • Are rules of the evidence the same over time, or do they change?
  • What’s the relationship between historical research and criminal investigation?
  • How has the idea of “mystery” changed over time?
  • How do newspapers affect the history of knowledge? What about photographs?
  • How would you rank the credibility of each of the types of evidence used in this episode?

Episode 2: Detection of Deception

Guiding Question: What is testimony?

Additional Questions:

  • What’s the difference between knowledge that comes in the form of “facts” and knowledge that comes in the form of “numbers?”
  • Is knowing things from facts more fair than knowing things from numbers?
  • What’s the relationship between historical research and criminal investigation?
  • What did people think about replacing trial by jury with trial by lie detector?
  • Did learning about the Frye case change how you think about Wonder Woman?

Episode 3: The Invisible Lady

Guiding Question: What is considered private, and who gets to decide?

Additional Questions:

  • How do people understand things they can’t see?
  • How did early radio affect the history of knowledge?
  • How do new technologies change our ideas of privacy?
  • What makes somebody invisible?
  • How do historians deal with the asymmetry of the historical record? About what people do we tend to know more, and about what people do we know less?

Episode 4: Unheard

Guiding Question: How do we record history?

Additional Questions:

  • Are novels historical evidence?
  • Why did people begin collecting oral histories during the Great Depression?
  • What should we do with the WPA slave interviews? Is it okay to use them as primary sources?
  • How would you describe Ralph Ellison’s struggle and achievement as a writer?

Episode 5: Project X

Guiding Question: When does predicting an outcome change it?

Additional Questions:

  • What was controversial about the first televised political advertisements?
  • Is there a difference between using TV advertising to promote commercial products like toothpaste, and to promote presidential candidates like Dwight Eisenhower?
  • How did TV coverage of politics affect the two parties?
  • How did TV affect the history of knowledge?

Episode 6: Cell Strain

Guiding Question: What did people know about viruses during the polio epidemic and how is that different from what do people know about viruses during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020?

Additional Questions:

  • How were politics and science tangled up during the quest for a vaccine for polio?
  • What are the rules of evidence in a scientific investigation and how are they different or the same as the rules of evidence in a historical investigation?
  • Under what conditions do people doubt scientific findings?
  • How did people learn about polio then, and how is it different from how you learn about coronavirus now?

Episode 7: The Computermen

Guiding Question: Is “data” the same as “facts” or more like “numbers” or something else entirely?

Additional Questions:

  • How did the mainframe computer affect the history of knowledge?
  • Why was the Johnson Administration’s proposal for a National Data Center defeated?
  • What rules about data do you wish the National Data Center made?

Episode 8: She Said, She Said

Guiding Question: Is it possible to know something about an experience you haven't had?

Additional Questions:

  • What is radical feminism? What makes it “radical”?
  • What did radical feminists mean by “the personal is political”?
  • What are the rules for using personal testimony as evidence?
  • What was at stake in Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz and why did the courts eventually drop the case?
  • What happened to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s?
  • What’s the relationship between the political battles over abortion and equal rights and the #MeToo movement?

Episode 9: For the Birds

Guiding Question: Both historians and scientists observe change over time. What's different about how they do that?

Additional Questions:

  • What was Silent Spring and what effect did it have?
  • What are scientists learning about bird populations lately?
  • What evidence do scientists use to study bird populations?
  • How do patterns work as evidence?
  • Why has there been such a fierce political battle over the evidence of climate change?
  • Why did the sounds of birds constitute such powerful evidence for Rachel Carson?

Episode 10: Tomorrowland

Episode Guiding Question: Simulating something is one way to know about it. What are the limits of that kind of knowledge?

Season Guiding Question: Over the course of this season, we've been tracing a change in the elemental unit of knowledge from mystery, to fact, to number, to data. Can you pinpoint moments in the stories we've told when those ways of knowing about the world were transitioning?

Additional Questions:

  • How did the rise of big data affect the history of knowledge?
  • Is predicting the future more important than studying the past?
  • Why does life in the twenty-first century feel so uncertain to so many people, even before the COVID-19 pandemic?