TV allows professors to reach millions with little-known history
It isn’t often that university professors get to teach millions of people at once, but that’s what happened last semester for two University of Louisville professors.
Carol Mattingly, professor of English, and Daniel Krebs, assistant professor of history, were featured experts on separate episodes of the NBC TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?” The show traces the family histories of celebrities, and its researchers and producers sought them for their expertise in little-known aspects of U.S. history.
Mattingly has researched extensively the writings of 19th century women and women’s groups. She helped actress Helen Hunt understand the importance of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in attaining the vote for women and in trying to improve the lives of 19th century women. According to the website “TV By the Numbers,” some 5.79 million people tuned in to watch the March 23 episode where Hunt learned that her great-grandmother, a WCTU leader in Maine, worked for women’s suffrage and for legislation to prohibit the sale of alcohol in the hope of improving the lives of women trapped in abusive marriages.
“I always feel that academics talk just to each other. We don’t talk to other people,” Mattingly said, noting that the opportunity to tell a large number of people about the WCTU is why she agreed to take several days out of a busy schedule to film her segment of the show in Portland, Maine.
People ought to know about this aspect of American history, she explained. “As a researcher, I said ‘yes’.”
Krebs, a military historian who specializes in U.S. Revolutionary War prisoners of war, provided information about a Hessian regiment to actor Rob Lowe, who had just discovered that his five-time great-grandfather had fought in that unit and faced George Washington’s troops at the pivotal Battle of Trenton.
He also explained to Lowe—and the 5.2 million people who watched the April 27 episode—how some of the Hessian soldiers who were taken prisoners of war, such Lowe’s ancestor, came to stay in America either by taking up the new U.S. government on its offer of land in exchange for leaving the army, or by deserting for other reasons.
Krebs wrote his dissertation on POWs in the American Revolutionary War and was finishing a book on the subject when the episode’s researcher contacted him for help. She told him, he said, that she had hit a dead end early in her research. If she couldn’t find a way around it, there would be no episode with Lowe.
Krebs helped her around the information obstacle, pointed her to other information resources in the United States and Germany and consulted on the script as the show kept checking with him to ensure that it represented the history accurately.
“I’m not a big fan of (genealogy) if they don’t put context in,” Krebs said. But the show’s researcher and producer “wanted to have more context, and I liked that.”
While Krebs helped the show, working with the show also spurred him to wrap up his book project. After having spent nearly a decade researching and writing about the POW experiences of people like Lowe’s ancestor, Krebs said he had hit his own “brick wall.”
“I was finishing up my book, and quite honestly was sick of my book. Every historian will tell you that at some point you get sick of your own research,” he said, noting that he got excited about the topic again when he had to think about how to explain it in about 45 minutes of TV time, as compared with hundreds of pages of print.
The book, which is about the life and treatment of German POWs in America between 1775 and 1783, is being published next year by Oklahoma University Press.
“They’ll maybe print 300, 400, 500 copies, and who knows who’s actually going to read it. It’s very specialized. I’m not writing the actual history of the American Revolution,” Krebs said. “That was kind of the draw for me—to get my name out. … To actually speak to such a large audience, is something for me, something that’s quite cool.
“Usually we don’t get that kind of audience.”