Welcome to Non-Boring History

Meet Dr. Annette Laing, the Non-Boring Historian, and learn what this site offers

Welcome to Non-Boring History! I’m Annette Laing. I'm a real historian (PhD, publications, and formerly tenured professor), Brit in the US, and missionary for history. I bring you fascinating ideas and jawdropping stories in entertaining posts and podcasts you can enjoy instead of doomscrolling.

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Why, yes, that is me, Annette, on board a covered wagon, about to start a long journey in summer heat on the 1849 Oregon/California Trail somewhere in Wyoming, and develop a sore bum in the process. Did I mention the driver is 18 and has two whole weeks of experience? This uncomfortable and mildly terrifying experience is one of many things I do to translate history for busy normal people. Like you! Photo: © Annette Laing, 2018

Non-Boring History is the catchphrase I coined some years ago to describe my work.

The Showing-Off Bit of this Bio. Feel Free to Skip This Bit.

My Serious Cred: I’m a former tenured professor of  history and member of the Africana Studies program at Georgia Southern University, with a PhD in Early American and British history. As a historian, I’m best known for a piece on 18th century African-American religion (title on request, because it’s long and boring). It hit the historical big time! That means professors might talk to me at history conferences after they glance at my nametag, and graduate students (some of them, anyway) bow down before me. Bwahahaha.

Anyway, all this is to say that I told my university to shove it in 2008, because I had more important things to do.

The More Fun Bit of this Bio. Skip This Too.

I have decades of experience teaching hungover freshmen at 8 a.m., and more surprisingly, entertaining ten year olds (more about that in a minute). I’m also  the author of series of historical time-travel middle-grades/YA novels (The Snipesville Chronicles) featuring a diverse cast, including a Black protagonist, and set in Britain and a small town in the Deep South. I was kind of ahead of my time on that.

But wait, there's more: I’m also a lower middle-class white woman from Scotland who grew up in a working-class town in England. I have lived for extended periods in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Atlanta, a small town in rural Georgia called Statesboro, and now Madison, Wisconsin. I still spend a lot of time Down South, and speak fluent Georgian: Hey, y'all! How's your mama ‘n them? And I've also come back to the UK every year for more than 20 years, not just to visit, but to tour historic sites, and to stay in touch with Brits in the present.

I started working with The Public (you) back in 2003 when I was having a midlife crisis, after I realized modern university life wasn’t for me. I could complain at length about how bloody awful it was, but I will spare you the juicy details for now.

Normal people having a mid-life crisis buy a Maserati. I held a children’s program.

With 4th graders and their questions at Austell Elementary in Atlanta, after presenting Gone West, a program about the 1849 California Gold Rush. 4th graders have more intellectual curiosity than most adults. I'm trying to tell you your kids are smarter than you are. Photo: © Annette Laing, 2020

My work with kids quickly drew national attention. But I soon realized that I was never just talking to kids (delightful though that was and is). My “non-boring history” presentations in schools, museums, and public libraries in rural Georgia were also engaging  and entertaining a diverse audience of teachers, parents, and grandparents.

And appreciative adult readers, especially but not exclusively women, send me fan mail about my books, always apologizing (unnecessarily) for being adult readers.

All this prompted me to make a few changes some years ago: I started consciously writing The Snipesville Chronicles on two levels, for young and adult readers. When I performed in schools, I made over-the-kids’-heads jokes for the adults in the room.

In short, I’m a missionary for history for everyone.

Strangely, though, apart from a mostly neglected blog, I never seriously tried to reach a bigger public beyond the fans of my books, and the adults I met while entertaining kids. In 2019, I started giving talks to adult community groups.

And in April, 2021, I started Non-Boring History, this newsletter.

Non-Boring History: What We're Doing & Where We're Headed

Join us, your fellow readers and me, including the Nonnies (my most avid fans) as we discover and explore mind-blowing stories that connect the past to our present. I want to help every reader find what in the past speaks to you, by going well beyond what you got at school or even in college if you just took the intro classes.

I am talking about the subjects that historians write about, but too often keep to ourselves (yes, even scholars who aim to write for “the public” but too often miss.)

I have a lifetime of heavy lifting in archives and libraries to draw on, not to mention more than a decade of encountering museums, historic sites, and fascinating people on my travels throughout the US and my native UK. I specialize in pillaging wonderful, yet huge, expensive, and seldom readable, academic books and original documents, some in spidery 18th century handwriting, for the astonishing tales they tell. And I shine a spotlight on historians’ work, and on how historians work.

Hanging out with two of the thousands of usually normal British folks who gather each year for a weekend in Haworth, Yorkshire, where they cosplay WWII. Seriously, great fun. Photo: © Annette Laing, 2018

Most of my posts will likely focus on what I know best: American and British history, with an emphasis on real life stories about real people. I am especially fascinated by African-American history.

But I often get stuck into new enthusiasms, ranging from ancient Rome to the Gold Rush, from the surprising untold stories of the Civil Rights movement to the eating habits of ordinary Brits in World War II.

I show how history isn't boring facts for facts sake, or stale nostalgia, but a living body of knowledge that connects to our daily lives, and to who we are. Or aren't.

When I travel, and especially around the US and UK (which I do quite a bit), I'll bring you with me. As I discover new-to-me sites and stories, I'll switch gears from my usual posts, and share in real time with you.

We'll learn together. One thing you never hear a real historian say? “I know all about that.” Because putting the past into a box marked “learned that” isn't what we do.

That was just one example of how I let you into my head. I am not an archeologist: I do not nerd out at the sight of a pottery fragment. Nor am I a buff, who knows exactly what color socks George Washington wore when he crossed the Delaware.

Even though I'm writing for you as a journalist, I am a historian. And my first question is always Who Cares? I don’t do random trivia from the past for the sake of random trivia. I don't tell you stuff just to tell you stuff. That would be boring.

At Non-Boring History, I offer a transparently personal take on the past. You won't find footnotes here. Instead, I try to show you how I'm thinking about the subject at hand.

I'm working to demo why having everyone take a few fun deep dives into history, not just the usual textbook stuff, and having them get to know the weird ways in which historians think, would really help us out of the shouty mess we’re in right now.

Not that historians don't argue. Heck, I once listened to one suggest to a packed auditorium at a national conference that her colleague's brain had been kidnapped by space aliens, while he sat scowling next to her.{sharp intake of breath from grad students} But I won't be arguing here. As was once said of Thomas Jefferson, with whom I have nothing else in common, I'm a scholar, not a debater.

Another historian once called me a POH (Plain Old Historian) and I wear the label proudly. Even though Non-Boring History isn't history, but a gateway to getting you interested in it, I pay close attention to evidence, investigate doubt, embrace complexity and empathy, play Devil’s advocate, consider my own biases, keep an open mind and refuse to accept something untrue just to be polite. This is also why I don’t get invited to parties.

Do I get things wrong, covering so many subjects, especially outside my research fields? Of course I do! That's why I revisit my posts, and make corrections. I also invite academic historians and other experts to let me know if they see a problem. Then I'll fix it, and show you how and why it happened.

STILL want to know more about me? Good grief. Here is my website (soon to be updated thanks to a Dane Artists Need Grant (DANG!) from the lovely people at Dane Arts in Madison, WI): AnnetteLaing.com

The Bit You Actually Need: How To Use Non-Boring History for YOU

  • Subscribe, whether on the free or the (recommended) paid plan, and Non-Boring History arrives 2-3 times a week in your inbox. The emails are important, because they remind you that Non-Boring History exists, and, most importantly, they challenge you to leave your comfort zone of confirmation bias for what you already know. Give me a chance to introduce you to a variety of subjects in a variety of writing styles, but do unsubscribe in your account to any of the categories if you find they're not for you.

  • To read a post, I STRONGLY recommend you touch its title in the email. This whisks you to the same article on the Non-Boring History site. Why? Larger type, more eye-friendly background. You also get the newest version of the post, because I often make updates.

  • Don’t have time to read the whole thing right now? No worries. All my posts are stored on the Non-Boring History site, for whenever you have a spare moment. The site is searchable, and don’t forget to click “see more” to see everything.

What Floats Your Boat?

My goal is to help you find what interests you. That starts with us figuring out how I can best communicate to you personally. Each post is assigned to a category (what Substack calls a section) that tells you what kind of post it is. You'll find the categories at the top of the homepage under Non-Boring History.

So far, categories include:

  • Annette Tells Tales These short posts are at the heart of what I do. I tell a short story from history that relates to now, one you never heard in high school. Usually, I do that by rewriting original documents or heavy academic prose into something you actually want to read! Try a Gold Rush diary rewritten for now, or the story of Rosa Parks told completely differently than you expect.

  • Annette on the Road Photos, videos, museum visits, and personal stories from my travels, especially in the US and UK, and usually to places you didn’t know existed, but will be really happy to know they do. The first post in Annette on the Road took us to Liverpool, and the Beatles’ Childhood Homes. More recently, I've blogged daily about a road trip from Madison, WI to California.

  • NEW: Non-Boring History Aloud. Podcast versions of many of my posts.

  • Coming Soon: A Bit of History I have a huge collection of random historical junque that I have purchased over the years. Each post looks at one item, and explains why it might speak to you, too. This can get quite exciting: my first Bit of History post is about a mystery. What I discovered knocked all of our socks off.

  • Behind the Scenes (stored in the general Non-Boring History archive): Part informative background, part snarky memoir of an overeducated old Brit in the US.

  • Coming Soon: History and Memory How do we remember historical events, and how do those memories differ from what historians tell us actually happened? .

Go on! Give Non-Boring History a Spin!

I don’t write for history “buffs”,  but for anyone who ever enjoyed 12 Years a Slave or Downton Abbey, Roots or Outlander, but don't know where to go from there. For anyone painfully aware that their history education sucked. For anyone who wants serious history written in an entertaining way, or wants to know more about the past, and not just wars and presidents.

Okay, Sure, But How Much $?

I have bills, like anyone else, so I need the support of paying subscribers. The good news? Like most academics, I’m a schmuck who's not in this for the money! Most of my posts are currently freely available to all subscribers, and my goal is that they remain so if I can find a few rich people to send me generous checks. Hello Mrs. Formerly Bezos!

Everyone else? Just hop on the FREE plan and give it a spin. Like what you see? Then please support this work if you can. If you can't? Stay anyway, and help me find other Nonnies by sharing with your friends.

I do have an agenda: I want to intervene and tempt you away sometimes from doomscrolling on Twitter and Facebook. Because you don't want your grandchildren to learn from your obit that your hobbies were watching cat videos, sharing fake news, and shouting at random strangers, do you? No, I didn't think so.

I am delighted to see you subscribe! Because of course you will.

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