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Aural Pleasure: Podcasting, Pedagogy and the Public Humanities

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In the Spring of 2016, I received confirmation that I had been awarded funding to undertake doctoral study that coming October. Overwhelmed, I physically jumped for joy, promptly thumping my skull on the shelf that rested shortly above me. Usually, we bang our heads due to frustration brought about by inertia, but I think about this literal knock as a transitional moment, one which allowed me to cross the battle lines drawn by my desk, seceding from the administrative camp and joining the ranks of graduate school (a bunch all too easy to track down, their path strewn with coffee cups and reference letters). Having worked as a university administrator for many years before becoming a researcher, I hold my own scholarship in strange regard. I am a defector, spying on myself, rifling through my work when I am not looking, sizing it up from the distance of my old desk: How is this useful? Who will it impact? Am I able to engage the public? Guiltily, I admit to being deeply affected by my years haranguing academics, even as I now avoid the administrators snapping at my heels.

I am unable to afford a psychiatrist to discuss this espionage of the self, and so I set about assuaging my guilt through other means. As researchers, I firmly believe we need to keep asking how we are able to make our scholarship more accessible. As a discipline, literary studies has been largely bound up within the bindings of the monograph, collection or journal. We make brief forays into television (following in the footsteps of our demi-celebrity historian colleagues) and the museum (though literary heritage still remains a point of consternation), yet we remain meanly measuring the worth of our craft through citations. All too often, we are concerned with who is talking about us, rather than who we are talking to. And the politics of the citation runs deep. Having already excluded the public, the paywall of the journal continues to cut out students at institutions that cannot or will not subscribe. Monographs are not widely available at public libraries, which are closing at the speed it takes paper to burn. Some brilliant work has been done to tackle these issues: the rise of open access, the creation of peer-reviewed sites such as Modernism/modernity’s Print Plus platform and Notches, digitization projects, interlibrary loans and systems such as SCONUL all seek to make our scholarship more accessible. Yet these innovations largely remain ensnared by the text and the citation, at the beck and call of publications, rather than the public. So too do these projects (worried about their reach) all too often focus on platforming established academics, rather than nurturing graduate students or early career researchers.

In December 2016, racked by the guilt of my administrative hangover, I set up the Modernist Podcast, a free monthly discussion of modernist art, culture and literature. The podcast interviews graduate students about their research, and is made widely available on streaming services Soundcloud, iTunes, TuneIn and WordPress. Episodes are organised thematically, much like their textual counterparts, with panels spanning subjects from “Modernism and Race” to “Modernism at War.” Panelists in the UK are recorded at their host institution, and those elsewhere are able to record themselves and submit their answers digitally, before they are edited centrally at Nottingham Trent University. In seven months, the podcast has reached over 5,000 listeners, with panelists across Europe, the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia. Offering an alternative to the text and free from the politics of the citation, the podcast format opens questions about who our research is for, which voices get to speak and how our scholarship can be used.

The casual, short nature of the podcast interview has a transformative effect on the way we exhibit our research. Much like the conference paper, with its restricted time frame inhibiting researchers from detailing each specific of their project, the podcast forces panelists to speak informally, opening their research to audiences outside of academia. Unlike with the conference paper, the listener does not have to pay to attend, nor take time off work to navigate the space of the conference center, often open only to those with institutional affiliation. In this regard, the podcast format lends itself neatly to the public humanities, as a tool through which researchers can extend their impact beyond the university without the need to organize a large-scale exhibition or sit down with a radio host. Combing through the podcasts available digitally, one can easily see their reach. Many are in the thousands of listens, and educational themes are often the most sought after. Podcasts such as Philosophy Bites, the London Review Bookshop podcast and Homo Sapiens are extremely popular, have a wide listenership and provoke meaningful debate. They provide a homegrown, twenty-first century counterpart to shows such as Moral Maze, often attracting a younger and more diverse audience.

Sparking such widespread digital interest, it is both fascinating and heartening that so many podcasts are produced by hosts who do not already work in the media or possess significant technological literacy. Many have grown simply from the zealous intrigue and deep commitment of their hosts, who use online guides and free software to produce their episodes. This has multivalent implications for researchers. Unlike the journal, with its wholly necessary time restraints, the production of the podcast means that panelists are able to choose when to offer their labour. The Modernist Podcast is able to interview panelists months in advance, keeping their record on file for a later date. Recording in this way allows researchers to work around child care constraints, periods of ill health and other deadlines. Moreover, podcasts can be produced relatively cheaply. The Modernist Podcast is proudly low-fi and largely recorded on a single Dictaphone. This reduces our costs and allows the podcast to remain freely accessible. In turn, having built a listenership over a period of months, the Modernist Podcast is now able to offer graduate students a wide audience, without the need to compete with each other for places. This means they are (quite literally) heard by peers across the globe, as well as members of the public and has already provided creative friction, established academics offering cross-institutional opportunities to doctoral researchers based on the strength of their time on the podcast.

More immediately, results are traceable through hit counts and feedback provided across email and social media. Yet measuring the impact of the podcast plainly through its listenership feels cynical (and draws us towards the politics of the citation). Instead, podcasts should be seen as digital learning tools that can stimulate critical thinking. To date, the Modernist Podcast has been used in summer schools and given to students at universities as “further reading.” The podcast form encourages learning outside of the visual or spatial, and is easily digestible on a walk home from the library in a way reading an article is not. Truly rewarding, however, is the use of the podcast format as a learning tool in itself. Having students produce podcasts (in which they interview academics, persons of interest or each other) encourages them to think critically about their subject matter, asking the vital questions we require of them in their essays. Producing podcasts also opens pathways for interdisciplinary collaboration with other departments, a consciousness of the importance of digital humanities, and the opportunity to gain skills that make students more employable outside of an academic context. As an administrator working in employability services, I partnered with academics to offer accredited classes on CV building and workplace skills. Podcasts make a digitally aware addition to such endeavours, and in Spring 2018, I will be pairing with administrators to offer classes on podcasting and public humanities.

As a discipline, the podcast format is able to push literary studies away from the immediacy of its textual focus, complementing more established forms. This has widespread pedagogical implications for the creation and consumption of our research. The podcast allows us to go beyond the bindings of the journal and the walls of the conference hall, as well as to destabilize the primacy of the lecture. Simultaneously, we are able to amplify voices that can often be pushed to the margins by the fierce competition of academia, platforming graduate students and early career researchers in an accessible format. And podcasts have revolutionary potential within the classroom, transforming the way we engage with material, as well as offering students marketable skills that will help them in an ever more digital workplace. As an undersung branch of the digital humanities, the podcast offers us much more than simple aural pleasure.

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