From ‘Ol’ Man River’ to 1960s rock, Hold That Thought tackles American identities​

Weekly podcast series explores question of what it means to be an American

This fall, Hold That Thought, a weekly podcast series from Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, will continue to delve into current academic research by teaming up with WUSTL’s American Culture Studies program.

Together, they are exploring the question of what it means to be an American, today and throughout the country’s history.

“American identity is both a complicated and ever-evolving concept,” said Claire Navarro, producer of Hold That Thought. “In the American Identities series, I wanted to delve into questions about how — within a country with such a dramatic history and huge range of diversity — different groups and individuals define and express their unique identities,” she said.

As essayist Eula Biss notes in an upcoming episode, “This country is often spoken of as a young country, though we’re not all that young anymore. I think we’ve reached a point where we need to look back on the mistakes of our youth and decide where we want to take ourselves in the future. That’s the process of becoming an adult.”

That line of thought is especially relevant in 2013, Navarro said. “A quick overview of recent headlines — the Trayvon Martin case, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, the ongoing debate on immigration — reveals the ongoing turmoil within the nation,” she said.

“Washington University is fortunate to have a stellar group of scholars exploring the most urgent and vexing dimensions of the problem ‘What does it mean/has it meant to be an American?’” said Iver Bernstein, PhD, professor and director of American Culture Studies.

It’s a problem of particular resonance on an American college campus, Bernstein said, as “one of the hallmarks of a great American university must be its ability to provide intellectual leadership on the great questions of American culture and identity.”

The first episode of the series, “Stripes and Scars,” was released last month and featured Bernstein discussing the Civil War draft riots. Each Wednesday through November, new episodes will address topics as far-ranging as American art and 1960s experimental rock music to the song “Ol’ Man River” and the horrors of slave ships.

Bernstein is thrilled that Hold That Thought will bring these big questions to a wider audience, which is the series’ main objective.

“The series on American Identities allows listeners to share the excitement of scholars’ journeys of discovery in an accessible, indeed, intimate way — you feel like you are right there at the moment of knowledge creation,” said Bernstein, who is also a professor of history and of African and African-American studies, both in Arts & Sciences.

Navarro also is excited about the partnership.

“As a multidisciplinary program, American Culture Studies was an ideal fit for Hold That Thought,” Navarro said. “Each professor I’ve had the opportunity to meet has offered a nuanced and distinct take on the idea of American identities.”

The Hold That Thought media project started a year ago, tackling complex topics such as memory and cities. Running between 10 and 15 minutes, the episodes are concise and engaging, similar to programming on Radiolab, NPR or TED Talks.

“Every podcast highlights the fascinating scholarship of individual professors,” Navarro said. “But within each series, I also try to reveal how disciplines across Arts & Sciences provide distinct perspectives on complex topics.”

To listen to the series and to keep up with the new episodes each Wednesday, visit the Hold That Thought website here.

You can also follow the series on Twitter or Facebook or subscribe to receive the weekly podcasts via iTunes or Stitcher.