UConn History Ph.D. alums Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks were featured in the Hartford Courant with an article titled, “These two women developed their love of history while studying at Trinity and UConn. Now, they’re bringing it to life through a podcast about the American Girl dolls.” As the article explains, Mahoney and Horrocks’ love for history and interest in using it as a conduit to connect with others has led them to launching the “American Girls” podcast. The article shares the large interest that the podcast has garnered, especially since receiving a very complimentary NYT review, quotes from Mahoney and Horrocks, and the importance of friendship as an underlying theme for the episodes.
Although she is missed in Wood Hall, the UConn History Department is happy to share that Dr. Amy Sopcak-Joseph, who defended her dissertation in the spring of 2019, has settled well into her new home in the Global Cultures Department of Wilkes-Barre University. On September 24th, an interview with Professor Sopcak-Joseph was published in Wilkes-Barre’s The Beacon. To read about her first semester experience thus far, please click here.
Ph.D. graduates Allison Horrocks and Mary Mahoney are taking the podcast world by storm! In addition to Horrocks’ job as a park ranger and public historian with the National Parks Service, and Mahoney’s position as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at Trinity College, the UConn alums host American Girls that explores American Girl fandom, pop culture, and U.S. history. The podcast has attracted over 100,000 listeners – including NYT columnist, Margaret Lyons, who recently lauded the podcast.
To learn more about the podcast and this impressive duo’s experience thus far, check out the Q&A below!
How did this podcast come to be? Not only regarding your engagement with the American Girl world during your childhoods (which you frequently and hilariously share on the podcast), but the actual decision to make a podcast.
AH: We have wanted to do a podcast on American Girl for years. A shared interest in the “OG” American Girls was also one of the first things Mary and I discussed when we became colleagues at UConn. Starting in 2017, we workshopped ideas for this kind of show in a variety of ways before it actually debuted in 2019. Notably, Mary has the technical skills and had already created a few podcasts and digital media projects before this one. But we knew that the timing had to be right. We both needed to be done with our graduate studies, settled into our respective jobs, and able to give the amount of time this project would require each week.
MM: My grandmother bought me books for Christmas when I was growing up. I remember obsessing over each series and the magazine, but not being overly invested in the dolls or material culture of American Girl. Once I aged out of it, I promptly forgot every single plot line of these books while also maintaining it was foundational to my early interest in history. When Allison and I met at UConn, we bonded over our shared love for the series and wondered if it had a similar impact on other readers our age.
The choice to make a podcast came partly from my interest in that format. I developed a serious interest in audio production and storytelling while a student at UConn where I obtained training at the community radio station (an opportunity I highly recommend to all interested), and created and produced a podcast called Chapters. One of the great assets of podcasts are that they are so accessible – anyone can make one if they have access to an internet connection. I grew up making zines, so it seemed like a natural transition for me to seek out a way to incorporate many different voices into a form that could be easily and freely distributed. Because American Girl is a brand that self-consciously curates presentations of girlhood, this format also seemed to lend itself to our subject and has let us incorporate many voices in addition to our own.
Could you please share what was your original goal in making the podcast? Has that goal (or goals) changed with the podcast’s increasing popularity, such as a receiving a wonderful NYT review, and/or potential feedback from your audience?
AH: We do this show partially with reverence for what the series did for us as young people. Yet we also take a critical stance on the worlds created in the books. One of my goals is to share my love of history and historical studies with a wide audience.
We receive messages of some kind every single day. Truly, whenever I open up one of our social media apps, I have a new story from someone who listens. That’s the best part of doing this, other than sharing the small successes we’ve had with my best friend.
MM: I think one of our original goals was to present a conversation about books that are meaningful to us in a format that reflects our friendship and how we think about history. This is a show that asks listeners to think with history – both the history of the time periods in which the books are set and the decades (1980s, 1990s) of their original publication. The fact that we present a way of doing history that is not at all reliant on trivia, is something that has resonated with listeners who had only a passing interest in the subject.
These are books that meant something to us in childhood, and our format preserves an essential part of childhood – specifically, play. My personal goal for this show is to have fun and hang out with my best friend. I could never have predicted the response we’ve received. When we started the show, we thought we’d be recording a conversation we’d be having anyway to share with a handful of friends. Now that we’ve had over 100,000 listeners, our approach has remained the same.
How do you balance the historical details with the pop culture references while also staying on topic for the hardcore AG fans?
AH: I think the combination of pop culture and historical content is reflective of our friendship. This show is authentic to our dynamic and reflects how we really talk. If we tried too hard to plan every bit of the conversation, it would be a really different show. It’s not scripted.
MM: How we sound on air is how we sound off air, and unlike most reality shows, we are not scripted.
How would you describe this project in terms of historical categories, such as public history, digital history, material history, etc.?
AH: I consider myself squarely in the world of public history. Lots of people have reached out to us about articles or books that we mention on the show. I know that for a few people, this has been a way to learn about a topic in a deeper way that they had only been introduced to in a high school or college level history class. That’s been really rewarding to hear. Ultimately, though, this podcast is a form of entertainment.
In one of the early episodes, you mention a discussion that occurred with a professor over the historical context surrounding Felicity. Was this a UConn professor? How has your experience at UConn impacted the way you analyze these stories as well as present them on the podcast?
AH: We plead the fifth on who the professor was in that story!
We would not be able to do a lot of the work that goes into this podcast without our graduate training. UConn is also where we became friends. We had known each other before UConn (we attended the same college) but not very well.
MM: **reenacts Felicity overturning her teacup to reject tea in protest of British tea tax** “I shall spill no tea.”
Finally, which American Girl would have been most likely to declare a History Major in college?
AH: Molly, obviously.
MM: I don’t remember any of the plot lines, but am confident saying all roads lead to Molly.
Matthew Guariglia, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in May 2019, contributed another great article to The Washington Post‘s Made By History column. His article, titled “What the loss of the New York police museum means for criminal justice reform,” underscores the importance of NYPD historical records for both obtaining insights into the police force as well as highlighting silences. In particular, Guargilia emphasizes the utilization of the documents for exposing “the deep intellectual, scientific and legal justifications for criminalizing black and brown populations.”
Regan Miner, UConn History Major and class of 2013, was named part-time Executive Director at the Norwich Historical Society (NHS). Miner, a Norwich native, previously served as a consultant to the NHS during which she amassed over $120,000 in grant funding over the span of six months to restore the 18th Century Daniel Lathrop Schoolhouse, now home to the Norwich Heritage andRegional Visitors’ Center, to create the “Discover Norwich” exhibit, and to organize the Walk Norwich Self guided trails.
With a Master’s degree in public history from Central Connecticut State University, Miner also serves as part-time associate director at the New London County Historical Society. In 2016, she received the 40 under 40 Award and the Connecticut Governor’s Conference on Tourism Rising Star Award. In 2018, she added the Mimi Findlay Award for Young Preservationists to her list of accomplishments.
Rachel Roach, a member of the class of 2018 and a proud History major, shares below how African history classes with Professor Fiona Vernal shaped her college experience, research interests, and career path.
I am a double major in history and Africana Studies. Through my African history courses with Dr. Vernal, I have been able to explore the ways in which certain narratives marginalized the history of some groups when told solely through a European lens and the mainstream curriculum in most American high schools. Interdisciplinary training in History and Africana Studies has taught me to question sources and pushed me to explore how an analysis of race and class, ethnicity and gender can shift the usual lens we use to tell stories about the past. My history courses have also introduced to the public history. I have been able to conduct research in the oral history and photo archives at the Manuscripts and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center Archives and participate in a major exhibit on South African history, Children of the Soil: Generations of South Africans under Apartheid. My training in history also afforded me the opportunity to secure an internship at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and to win an IDEA Grant through the Office of Undergraduate Research. With this grant I was able to create a Native American Mascot Database. I also hosted a symposium on the history of Mascots in partnership with Chris Newell Co-founder of Akomawt Educational Initiative, a majority Native owned learning resource/consultancy partnership aimed at social change through education. My majors have inspired me to pursue a career in public history. I hope to go on to obtain my masters in public history.