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Two University projects earn National Endowment for the Humanities grants

Public radio show, media studies project to receive funding among seven projects across the state

The National Endowment for the Humanities announced seven grants to the state of Virginia Thursday, two of which will go toward University projects.

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities received $176,151 to fund a two-year podcast and educational project to be conducted by BackStory, a weekly public radio show on American history hosted by U.S. historians and University History Profs. Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh, along with former University professor and current University of Richmond President Ed Ayers. The show is broadcasted weekly by dozens of stations in 20 states, and has been downloaded by millions worldwide.

“[The grant] means a tremendous amount to the program,” said Andrew Wyndham, BackStory creator and executive producer. “We want BackStory to become a household word. We’re trying to create a national conversation about history.”

The project, titled “Finding the American Way,” will feature three miniseries to be aired as part of the radio show in the next two years. The project will examine how work, faith and civic participation have shaped American history and the American identity.

According to a BackStory press release, the project will “investigate how the work ethic and opportunity, assertions of religious belief and practice, and democratic freedoms and responsibilities have shaped American lives and history, bumping up against fundamental questions of freedom, equity, race, gender, individual rights, cultural pluralism, federalism and the struggle to sustain a national community.”

The project will also be developed into related lesson plans for U.S. educators. Wyndham said the BackStory staff developed the project with specific educational applications in mind.

“The program as a whole is an educational program, but it’s designed to appeal and be accessible to a very broad public audience,” Wyndham said. “As we complete the production for one series we will begin to work with the National Council for History Education … to develop lesson plans to make these programs accessible and useful in the classroom.”

According to Wyndham, the grant funds will go toward paying the salaries of the radio show’s seven-person staff, among other production expenses.

“[The BackStory staff is comprised of] young producers who have been hired from around the country,” Wyndham said. “They’re very smart, very capable people, who decided to come to Charlottesville and work on this national startup show.”

The second grant went to Media Studies Asst. Prof. Jennifer Petersen, who received $6,000 dollars to fund a research project titled “How Machines Came to Speak: Media Technologies and the First Amendment.”

Petersen is examining how speech, as a legal term, has evolved through time and how new speech-enabling technologies have been classified by the courts throughout American history.

“The project investigates the history of media technologies and free speech,” Petersen said in an email. “What counts as free speech under the law has expanded greatly over the course of the 20th century.”

The grant will fund Petersen’s summer work on the project. She intends for her research to culminate in the publication of a book by the end of 2015.