When Tristan Johnson, MA’14, MA’15, decided to ‘step back,’ he didn’t know we would all follow.
As the creator of Step Back: Seeing History Sideways, a YouTube channel filled with unconventional, quirky and, most importantly, enlightening takes on the past, the History PhD student enjoys tackling anything that spurs his interest.
His idea for the channel, which he began in September 2015 when he started his graduate degree at Western, was to go past the names, dates and battles you might find elsewhere. He wanted to consider the past and how it connects to today by talking about those nuggets history channels overlook. Then, using his own idiosyncratic takes, relates those stories to a popular audience.
“I’ve always rejected the idea there are two sides to every issue; there are usually several,” Johnson said. “I wanted to find historical topics that make you have that feeling of vuja de – where something you’ve seen a million times is all of a sudden really unfamiliar and strange and much more deep and interesting than you actually thought it was. I wanted to break the established vision of things.”
To his mind, history was not living up to the great communications feats in other fields. Science is doing a great job, he said, but the humanities and social sciences have been getting more obscure, obtuse and inaccessible.
“I have watched the amazing success of scientists in the educational realm,” said Johnson, citing Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. “There was one problem though. History – the topic I love – was woefully unrepresented in this space. We don’t have a Bill Nye for history and that really disappointed me.
“History teaches valuable skills and helps a lot of the world make more sense by gaining perspective through the past. When we do see history content, it’s either non-enriching (long descriptions of battles and royal lineages) or attempts to take other, less reputable work, and sell it as history in order to be a little flashier.”
Through his animated videos, hosted by his own avatar, Johnson has tackled everything from That Time The World Ended, The Wonderful Weirdness of Iceland and Why Doesn’t Santa Smoke Anymore, to more serious topics including The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Was It Justified?, Why Politics Matters: The Colfax Massacre and Was 9/11 an Inside Job?
“Everyone has what they do to wrap up their day and, to me, I love making stuff. I love to be creative,” Johnson said. “When you’re so focused on your PhD, it’s become my hobby, sort of my getaway. It’s a good excuse to read about ancient Rome when I’m studying the 21st Century.”
Johnson does not fear running out of topics. He is surrounded by them.
“I work in a history department; it’s being talked about every day. I’m always surprised by cool ideas,” said Johnson, who is producing a new video each month. “The trick is which one to bring forward. I want someone who says history is boring to like my stuff. There are a lot of great stories out there. And it’s the stories that makes history so compelling.”
If numbers are any measures of success, then Johnson, who holds two master’s degrees from Western (History and American Studies), is striking a chord with viewers. In the first three months, he boasted 150 YouTube subscribers, a strong number for someone new to the niche. Just over a year later, Johnson now has 15,000 subscribers.
“It’s hard for me to comprehend those numbers. Somebody told me that’s basically like a stadium. That’s pretty amazing,” he said, adding his larger mission is showing the importance of history education. “If there’s anything we’re going to need to know in 2017, it’s that we are not separated from our context. Understanding our culture involves understanding our history and it’s a good mirror as to where society has been and where it’s going.”
TAKE A STEP BACK
Check out Step Back: Seeing History Sideways for all of the fun and educational history videos Tristan Johnson has created for his YouTube channel by visiting tristanjohnson.org/step-back.