Amid the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marcia Chatelain, professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, decided to start subscribing to newsletters, both to support projects of friends and to broaden her knowledge.
As the lockdown continued and Chatelain was stuck at home teaching through a Zoom screen, she had an idea — to start a newsletter of her own.
So she did.
Chatelain’s newsletter, titled “Your Favorite Prof,” launched Jan. 29 and combines her three favorite things: fast-food history, good teaching and lifelong learning. The newsletters range in subject and are filled with wit, with headlines like “Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner!: Or How the Nuggets are Made” and “Whatever the Hell I Want: Or, What Exactly Are You Going To Do With a History Major.”
Chatelain said launching the newsletter was a way to cope with a loss of normalcy during the pandemic.
“The thing that I miss the most about the before times is being able to travel places and just connect or reconnect with people, and so I started the newsletter to kind of fill that void,” Chatelain said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
The newsletter is an opportunity to share ideas she hadn’t had a chance to before, according to Chatelain.
“I really like trying to take some of the research I’ve collected over the years that I haven’t been able to find a place for — you know, not in my book and not in podcasts — and just want to share my interests with people,” Chatelain said. “For me, it’s always important to experiment with different types of form, and this is just a new way of doing that.”
Subscribers to “Your Favorite Prof” can choose between free content, which is delivered twice a month, and a paid weekly subscription, which costs $5 a month, according to Chatelain.
Chatelain has published content in other mediums, including her book “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” which came out January 2020. The book is a product of Chatelain’s lifelong interest in fast-food history. Her long-standing fascination brought about a historical investigation on the expansion of McDonald’s in Black communities during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the role of Black capitalists in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
Chatelain’s ability to intertwine historical anecdotes with teaching advice makes the content appealing to a wide range of readers, according to Emily Norweg (GRD ’21), a fifth-year doctoral candidate and Chatelain’s graduate research assistant and dissertation advisee.
“Like everything else professor Chatelain does, it is simultaneously somehow hilarious and also incredibly informative,” Norweg said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “People must know that she has an amazing sense of humor, and it comes across in the newsletter.”
In one of Chatelain’s newsletters, “Hail to the Drive Thru: Or, Fast Food in the White House and Teaching Thomas Jefferson,” she examines the relationship between former President Bill Clinton and fast food chains like McDonalds.
“For Clinton, his presence at McDonald’s placed him in that sweet spot of relatable and in-touch with the everyday American person,” Chatelain wrote in the newsletter. “The message was clear: Regular people eat fast food and it was time a regular person was in the White House (regular meaning attended Georgetown University, Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, Yale Law School, and elected the second youngest governor in your state’s history).”
Chatelain manages to take complicated topics of history and translate them into manageable and captivating pieces of scholarship, according to Norweg.
“She makes a connection with people, and they become really invested in her work,” Norweg said. “And that’s not easy to do because a lot of time people think history is boring and dead and there’s nothing to be learned from it unless you’re already someone who’s invested in it, but she manages to get people interested and invested who wouldn’t necessarily be otherwise.”
Working during the pandemic, whether that be teaching or starting a new kind of project, has required flexibility and openness to the possibility that plans are always subject to change, Chatelain said.
“I just want to say that I’ve been so really moved by how much students have really stuck in there with me as I’ve tried to teach virtually, but also just how much students have cared for their learning and stayed invested in their learning under these really difficult circumstances,” she said.