Senior project: history, passion, podcast

Dillon Mims' history podcast aims to debunk the notion we are living through "unprecedented times."

By
Patrick Garrity
March 16, 2021

Dillion Mims '21, with classmate Nahla Owens '21, prior to introducing author Ibram Kendi during the MLK Jr. Day observance in 2020.

Dillon Mims ’21 spent the early days of the pandemic bombarded by history. A toxic presidential campaign. A national reckoning over racial and social injustice. A novel coronavirus killing indiscriminately.

Quarantined in his Norwalk, Connecticut, home last spring, Mims juggled remote learning with the glut of bad news filling his screens each day.

“Something I kept hearing was the notion of something being unprecedented,” he says. “We were in uncharted waters. How many people heard that 20 times in March alone?

“I couldn’t tell you if it was a genuine intellectual curiosity or I just didn’t want that to be true, but I became obsessed with the idea of proving that notion wrong."

Something I kept hearing was the notion of something being 'unprecedented.' We were in 'uncharted waters.' How many people heard that 20 times in March alone?"

The self-described “down-the-rabbit-hole political junkie” combined a recent affinity for podcasts and his mission to debunk the prevailing narrative to create “Precedented Times,” a six-episode podcast set to debut April 7. The project is Mims’ senior independent study, a program that allows Exeter students to explore areas of interest that fall outside traditional course descriptions. Seniors, with approval from the faculty, may design individual or joint projects of comparable value and scope to those of an academic course.

Other senior projects during the 2020-21 winter term include, among others, Luke Breen’s research of the local surfing culture in Rincon, Puerto Rico; Sophie Cavalcanti’s creation of an annotated bibliography on racism of books and movies in French and German; and Senai Robinson’s and Philip Horrigan’s investigation into the relationship 250 years ago between Exeter’s founders and slavery.

Each student works with a faculty member to shape their project and document their work, then presents their finished product at the conclusion of the term. Mims, who was advised by History Instructor Bill Jordan, played a trailer for the upcoming series and summarized his process to a remote audience over Zoom.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned through the study of American history,” Mims recites in his trailer, “it’s that the United States has been through tons of difficult times before. And the more I dug, the more similarities I found between our past and our present.”

The time and resources poured into projects often exceed those dedicated to many senior-level classes, and Mims' project proved arduous. Originally intending to make 10 episodes, he soon realized the amount of research, writing and production for each episode would require him to temper his own expectations. Eventually, he chose six current issues or events to examine: the pandemic, the 2020 presidential campaign, racial and social upheaval, conspiracy theories, the influence of white supremacy and disputed election results.

“That became the essential drive of my podcast: To take an event from [2020] and relate it back to a similar event in American history,” he says.

Mims researched each topic extensively, then spent four to five days writing an episode. He then used an audio transcription program called Descript that allowed him create and edit each episode almost as one would a written document. Four of the six episodes are completed — at an average duration of 48 minutes — with two more in production.

I realized that when I had the freedom to study what I want and those elements of history that I find interesting, the passion never runs out for me.”

“I think that something happened between my lower spring and my upper winter where I just really fell in love with history,” he says, crediting the research required to write the notorious U.S. History 333 paper as a tipping point. “I was given the freedom to study what I wanted to study and research what I wanted to research, and this is an extension of that. I realized that when I had the freedom to study what I want and those elements of history that I find interesting, the passion never runs out for me.”

Along with satisfying his premise that current times are — while challenging — not, in fact, “unprecedented,” Mims says he acquired an appreciation for how much time and resources go into producing his favorite podcasts. He also discovered a favorite quote from historian Jeffrey A. Engel.

“The old aphorism ‘Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it’ is, in fact, false. Those who study history are also doomed to repeat it. But we are less surprised.”

“This is what my podcast is all about,” Mims says. “We may not be able to control that history will repeat itself, but we can know what to do when it happens.”

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