Ian M. Cook
Today we explore scholarly podcasting: what it is and why it matters. With me is Ian M. Cook, who has recently published the book Scholarly Podcasting: Why, What, How?
Ian M. Cook is Editor and Chief at Allegra Lab. He is an anthropologist whose work focus includes urban India, scholarly podcasting, open education, and environmental (in)justice.
Correction: In the episode, we say we will play a clip from Vincent Racaniello but the clip played is actually from Michael Bossetta.
Citation: Cook, Ian, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 317, podcast audio, April 17, 2023.https://freshedpodcast.com/cook/
Will Brehm 0:01
Ian Cook, welcome back to FreshEd.
Ian Cook 1:10
Thanks, Will. It’s great to be here.
Will Brehm 1:11
Congratulations on your new book. It’s a book that sort of cuts close to the heart, I must say, all about podcasting. Can you just sort of tell me what is scholarly podcasting and how it is different from say, I don’t know, regular podcasting?
Ian Cook 1:25
When I did the analysis of it, when I said, “What is a scholarly podcast”, I said, it’s a curiosity generator, which is basically a way of saying that this is something which is a practice that helps create the conditions for scholars to follow their curiosity. And I think it’s a curiosity feeder. And because they open up new avenues, like when people go along, it’s also a creator, as well. And I think that’s sort of interesting in academia, or people who are adjacent to academia, because very often, when we write stuff, especially, we’re producing stuff for our CVs, basically, often, unfortunately, and we get very narrow foci, which is also understandable, because we have become experts in a very narrow field, that’s different when you come to make a podcast, because often people sort of just follow what’s interesting to them, right? Because like, I’m really interested in a person who’s somehow related to my research, and I want to interview them for a podcast, and you can just go and do it. And so for that, it was very good. And I think it becomes a generator of curiosity because of the way people ask questions through conversations, or through storytelling or through listening, but also as the way it’s published as well. So, it’s not like going through this very slow process, and so on.
Will Brehm 2:37
It’s an interesting, sort of a wide angle definition of what scholarly podcasting is. And I guess it sort of crosses the boundaries of people inside and outside higher education. You use scholarly adjacent, because you don’t have to be a professor or student of higher education to be involved in scholarly podcasting it seems, right? I mean, so Joe Rogan is sort of one extreme, sure. But there’s so many other podcasts that are created by individuals who aren’t in the university, but would be sort of in a scholarly pursuit. So, for me, the classic example is the podcast In Our Time, it’s like a BBC show but now, of course, on as a podcast and the host brings three different scholars together but the host himself is not necessarily in a university setting but it’s a very academically oriented podcast.
Ian Cook 3:32
Yeah. And I would say, but again, In Our Time started off as a radio show. So, all this started off even before podcasts existed. I would say it’s an interesting example, because it’s always three academics sitting around, but it has a different orientation, in a sense, because they’re in a rush because they always have to fit within the 45 minutes of the show, which is actually very different than the way we’re having a conversation now, right? Because we’re having a conversation, and maybe you didn’t really like the start of my answer when I got a bit confused. And then I went back and said, No, it’s a curiosity generator. And you just might just edit out the stuff I’ve said and we can be more relaxed. So, I think that also changes the contours a little bit as well. But I should also mention that with the book, I basically interviewed 101 scholars who make podcasts who are scholarly adjacent, so we say back in 2020. And then what I did was then I transcribed them all, listened to them all because I think also working from a transcript isn’t great when you’re working with audio because you can actually hear people’s emotions and inflections and so on. And then I curated all of these interviews under certain headings, and I brought some with me today to play for you. So, maybe we can listen to the first one because then it maybe answers the question in a different way. And the first one I want to play you is by Michaela Benson and she used to make a podcast called Brexit Brits Abroad, and I am a Brexit Brit abroad.
Will Brehm 4:57
Excellent. I’ll pull up the first clip.
Michaela Benson 4:59
…But I think it’s also fair to say we’re working in a landscape where the public are asking questions about academic research and how to navigate that. You know how to produce academic research for the public in responsible and ethical ways is something that I really think that we need to take control of. And it’s a conversation that we need to be part of because there are plenty of people who are using their alleged academic expertise to quite different ends, shall we say, without wanting to get too judgmental about them, or moralize? And I think there are interesting questions about the role of intellectual work in public life and how you do that. And there are obviously different scales at which that happens. But it is a real tension, that kind of thing if you want to communicate complex understandings but this is actually a public landscape that doesn’t encourage complex understandings. So, if you can’t come up with your two minute spiel, then you’re off mainstream media, first of all, you’re out of The Guardian, which is probably the only side of mainstream media that you might even want to consider being part of. And there’s someone else occupying that space, and communicating that knowledge. And the great thing about podcasting is because it’s not really mainstream, there is still a space for that more complex understanding to communicate to come across. I’ve written for The Conversation, I’ve written for Open Democracy, and there are questions about who’s in control of the knowledge production there in the same way as you’d have with mainstream broadcast journalism. Who is doing the editing at that stage? I’ve written for the BBC. That was a fascinating process. But you know, there is a danger that those complex understandings get written out under the guise of making things accessible. And so, in a way, being able to control the medium. So, being able to control the content of the podcast is quite useful in some respects.
Will Brehm 7:08
That’s a really interesting insight that Michaela mentions about who gets to control the production of knowledge. What did you take from that interview with her?
Ian Cook 7:18
Yeah. So, this is, I think, going back to the “what” of academic podcasting, right? So, it’s great, because you’ve really got the time to deep dive into a topic in a complex way. And what’s endlessly fascinating to me is that people do listen to these podcasts. I found myself – partly because I did this research, but anyways – you know, you find some podcasts, and you’re quite happy to spend, you know, 1 to 3 hours, like over a series on a topic, which you knew nothing about before, and which you’re hearing from the horse’s mouth directly, which is absolutely fascinating. So, it means you’re basically publishing without gatekeepers but with the voices present of the people there as well talking through. You can even hear it in the way she was speaking then, right? You can also hear that in a podcast, because when Michaela was obviously in an interview with me, and she was obviously wanting to judge somebody, although she didn’t. She just had a bit of a laugh about it and you can hear all of that, which is also great as well, I think in terms of you actually hear the human in the scholar as well.
Will Brehm 8:26
I usually refer to it as “open science”. Scholarly podcasting allows sort of new directions in open science where we get to not necessarily be controlled by editors but we also get to put out full interviews that we might then chop up and use in different ways for a book like yourself, where you’ve taken clips, and put them into the actual written text, you also have the ability to play the whole episode as a way of quote, unquote, sharing the data for others to then interpret in their own ways.
Ian Cook 9:00
Yeah, it’s absolutely fascinating. And I think also, you can see with the desire of people to understand what academics do, because there’s a lot of distrust of academia or scholarly knowledge, some of it justifiable, some of it a bit right wing conspiracy theories, but what I think is really great is, especially because you’re hearing not only the whatever the final product, which is what we produce when we write a paper for a journal, you know, we get this very sort of tight, well argued, hopefully, watertight argument put out there in the world. And what’s obscured in that is all of the drafts and the thinking and all of these processes along the way. And I think by opening up the knowledge creation process, so open science, which you can see the data especially in disciplines such as ours, where a lot of it is about thinking and a lot of it is about conversation, then people can see the steps along the way, how we made those arguments. And then people can listen to the data and also make their own conclusions as well. And I think that’s really, really important not only to make good science per se but also politically as well so that people can actually see why it is we reached where we want to be.
Will Brehm 10:09
Do you know how big this sort of area of scholarly podcasting is? Like number of shows or the number of listeners around the world? Like, how do we even begin to quantify it?
Ian Cook 10:20
So, when I first started this project, it was like in 2017, and I very naively thought I would just – in the beginning, I was just mapping scholarly podcasts. You know, Excel table, and I was like, listening to them, made some notes, but there was more being produced than I could listen to. And I was like, Okay, if I just contain myself, just to anthropology or just to sociology or just to a certain part of the world, maybe you can get a handle on it, but still not then. Because, especially, I mean, as I’m sure you know, lots of people start podcasting and they stop, right? And then, so it’s also hard and things disappear. And it’s very hard. So, I had more of a snowball approach. I put out feelers, and then people got back in touch with me. And then when there were areas that were missing, like if I didn’t have a mathematician, then I would hunt down maths – you know, there’s more in history because the medium lends itself more to these sorts of disciplines than necessarily to maths. Although there’s a great maths podcast called My Favorite Theorem and they basically interview mathematicians, and it basically humanizes the mathematician. And it’s great. And there are loads of stuff. But in terms of how big they are, it goes from podcast to podcast. So, maybe I can play you one by Vincent Racaniello and he does a podcast called This Week in Virology. And as you might imagine, that podcast is massive because people became very interested in viruses in the last couple of years. But if you listen to that, it’s a short clip. And he sort of explains his relationship to knowing who his audience is.
Michael Bossetta 11:49
I could list 100 reasons why downloads are not important but I’ll only name a few here. I think first, the main beneficiary of your podcast is you. So, if you’re learning from it, networking with it, and most importantly, having fun, then that’s really the most important. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s 100% true. And there’s not really much you can do about download numbers. I’ve tried everything; mainstream media pickup, plugging on other podcasts, promoting it every talk I give, and nothing moves the numbers significantly in any direction. It’s really about the quality not quantity of your audience. If your podcast is reaching 50 people but they are peers or students in your field, your content is going directly into their ears, and they’re going to be appreciative. One email about how much someone appreciates your podcast is worth 1000s of downloads. And even with a small audience, I get those emails quite regularly. And I think it’s also important to visualize your downloads as people in a room. After five years, my core audience is maybe 500 people. But imagine speaking to an audience of 500 people in person. Most of us will never have that opportunity in an academic setting. But with podcasting, I do it regularly. So, I check the downloads every now and then just to make sure nothing’s wrong with the podcast technically but I’ve really come to view downloads as otherwise not important.
Will Brehm 13:04
That’s some really interesting insights there because trying to even know who your audience is, trying to know who the FreshEd audience is is actually really quite hard to do. On my end, as a podcast, you just sort of put these things out into the world and you just have no clue how they get taken up, or in what ways and it’s nice to hear Vincent sort of reflect on the same way. He actually sounds amazed by the people ends up reaching.
Ian Cook 13:28
Yeah, yeah. Do you want to listen to this? I also have a clip from this guy called Will Brehm, he has a podcast called FreshEd. We can see how much your voice has aged living in London for three years.
Will Brehm 13:37
[From a previous interview with Ian Cook]. Yeah, so we’ve actually surveyed our listenership. And what we know basically, is that a third are students, a third are teachers, and not just university teachers but also secondary and primary school teachers, and then a third are what I guess you could call development practitioners -people who work for the World Bank, people who work for the UN, people who work for NGOs, and each group sort of uses the podcast in different ways, of course. For me, what’s interesting is the development practitioners. What we understand is they simply don’t have time or access to academic literature. They don’t have the time to read it, they don’t have the access to it but they know how important it is to inform their practice. And so the podcast is sort of a really great way for them to learn about new ideas in education and sort of help them identify which papers they should actually spend more time reading.
Ian Cook 14:35
I think that’s interesting what you say, right? I mean, going back to the question of open science, it’s like, there are a bunch of people who want to know, right? But let’s be honest, now sometimes when you open up an academic article, sometimes it’s written in such a language that you’re like, Okay, I’m gonna have to get another cup of coffee before I read this. But like, of course, we’re used to doing this because we work in higher ed and so we’re used to it but for the average person who is an intelligent person who wants to think about the world, often it’s impenetrable. Not only in terms of the language but also paywalls everyone, most people probably know where to find articles to download for free. But in terms of just knowing where to look and how to look, that’s also a skill as well. So, in a sense, then the podcaster becomes a curator. So, you know, in your example, for higher ed practitioners or professionals, they can scroll through the topics, and then they can listen to you have a conversation with someone in their field, and then deep dive into that, which is really, really important, right?
Will Brehm 15:32
And I think what I have had to learn over the years, there’s a big responsibility, because people end up trusting you, even those that you’ve never met before. And they sort of turn to FreshEd to find the latest material, the latest content. And I’m sure this happens for other podcasts as well in other fields, and you end up realizing why you have a great responsibility, almost as a gatekeeper, right? Similar to those journal editors that are sort of gatekeeping what polished pieces get published, and that I find it’s rather confronting. I would imagine, I don’t know if I live up to that responsibility as much as I should in a way.
Ian Cook 16:08
I’m sure you do, because you’ve become I guess, a gatekeeper of sorts who has a responsibility in a different sense than an editor does, right? Because your responsibility here is partly to the discipline, I guess, and also to your audience, and you have a different relationship with your audience, partly because they hear your voice, because your name is associated with the podcast, right? And so it becomes this very personalized thing over the years and it sort of pushes you then to be accountable to different communities in ways that an editor of a journal or even an editor of a newspaper is not right? Often, we don’t know who these editors are, right?
Will Brehm 16:46
Well, the other thing that I find so interesting, as you’re saying, students sort of access this information, and it sort of provides them a different avenue into some of these insights. It sort of makes the scholarly content rather human. But at the same time, what I also find so fascinating is that the students end up listening to this content in times that aren’t normally available for sort of scholarly engagement. So, when they’re doing the dishes, or when they’re going for a walk. You know, those earbuds you see everywhere now. So, people pop the earbuds in and sometimes they’re listening to these scholarly podcasts and sort of furthering their own knowledge just in times, and in spaces that have just usually been completely off limits. And I find that sort of revolutionary.
Ian Cook 17:32
Yea. I think it’s amazing. For Easter -we’re recording this just before Easter – my parents are coming to visit and so I know, tomorrow, I gotta clean the flat, clean the windows and do all this stuff. So, I’m just gonna, line up a bunch of podcasts about whatever, and have that in my ear. And that’s amazing, right? And it fits really well because something about the way that we consume audio versus the way that we consume text, especially nowadays, digital texts, and digital audio, it allows for a deep immersion into a topic because you’re doing something else that you don’t get with text. I know very often now with text, I’m skim reading and you can’t skim read audio or skim listen, audio, right? It’s there, it’s in your ear, if you get bored, you turn it off, right, you don’t get to the end?
Will Brehm 18:17
But people do listen to it at like 1.5x or 2x times speed, which is something that I never realized that people do, but you can actually listen to a 30 minute podcast in 15 minutes.
Ian Cook 18:27
Yeah, yeah. I don’t like to do that. I like to hear the conversation, the voice, the inflection, all these things but if it’s just information getting or that sort of information, then yeah. But again, it’s still different, right? Because you’re still leaning into it. And you still follow the thing through from beginning to end. Like so now, like I clicked on a news article, I read the headline, maybe the beginning, scroll down. You can’t do that with audio, right? It’s linear, right? In that step, the digital text isn’t, or any text isn’t, which has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of when we’re producing scholarly things. Because one of the good things about text, of course, is you can go back. Like, you know what, I didn’t quite understand what was being said, there. Let me skip back a couple of pages and check if I really understood that concept. And you can’t really do that with audio. Of course, you could but people don’t. Because mostly people listen to it with their earbuds whilst skimming something else. And so that, in a sense, is a disadvantage of using a podcast as a form of knowledge production. It has many advantages, of course. And I think it’s great that we work with different mediums. But of course, it has these disadvantages as well that the text is so great for because it’s so easy to jump around the text.
Will Brehm 19:34
I want to sort of pick apart this notion of knowledge production versus knowledge dissemination because I think sometimes I feel that what I do on say, FreshEd with interviews is much more knowledge dissemination. Where you’re sort of taking someone’s article that they’ve written, something they’ve written about, and talking to them to disseminate those ideas to a wider audience that might not go and read the work that was written. But it usually always derives from some written piece. And I worry that sort of moves away from knowledge production, which is sort of creating something new and different. And it makes me think that I don’t necessarily always use the affordances of audio to sort of disseminate or create knowledge in ways that I could. I mean, did you come across this sort of tension in this book that you put out?
Ian Cook 20:24
Yeah, So, it’s a sliding scale, right? So some people are more like, what we do is dissemination, right? And some people are more like, actually, we’re creating stuff with what we do. And part of it depends, of course, on the style of the podcast. Of course, there are many different types of podcasts and I’ll talk about them in a moment. But even in a conversation style podcast, like what we’re having now is that, when you’re having a conversation, if the host is well prepared and understands and if the guest is willing and open to be able to talk things through and not just go back to the written thing, then new ideas and insights can come up within the conversation. And in that sense, it’s something there. In another sense, it could be there in terms of the steps along the way to producing something. So, there are some podcasts that people make, which are more about thinking through ideas. And maybe it’s like, almost as if the podcast is the first draft of something, which then later becomes a paper. There are podcasts like that as well. There are also people who make podcasts by interviewing people, but those people they’re interviewing are also there, as we would say in anthropology, their interlocutors, you know, the people that they’ve gone to do research amongst. And that also becomes a form of data collection as well. So, there’s lots of different possibilities. And some people really think of it as going out and doing research and putting it out there. So, maybe we can listen to Maria Ehrnström-Fuentes -I’ve probably really butchered her name, which I’m sorry about- because she exactly had a project, which was both research and a podcast at the same time.
Maria Ehrnström-Fuentes 21:57
It’s both data collection, but it’s also a dissemination. Okay, so since I’m open about it I will do research about this but I will also distribute it widely, I’m aware that there are some things that might not be shared with me that could be shared. On the other hand, what was really interesting to see was that people are more willing to participate in this kind of research than the traditional way of doing research. Because as I told you, I did like a double research at one point, and the ones that were participating in the traditional one, they didn’t have time for me that many. I had to really negotiate with them to give me that one hour time. While these other ones, of course, I was kind of familiar with them as well, they were like, Oh, lovely, come, you can stay at our house for the night, if you want. I think it’s something about the openness and giving meaning to something more than just that closed academic community that creates meaning also to those that are participating.
Will Brehm 22:50
Really interesting. I actually want to go and listen to her podcast now because I think when you start seeing podcasting as a form of research and the people you end up interviewing you do -you know, it sort of crosses into this line of journalism because you’re recording these voices that then might be heard, which is not common in the sort of academic space where you might record someone’s voice but those recordings would never be heard. And the ethics forms would always sort of say, you can’t show these or share these outside of the research team.
Ian Cook 23:19
Right! But then what’s super interesting, we should say her podcast is called Worlds in Transition, but that’s just the translation and it’s either in Finnish or in Swedish, which I can’t quite remember right now. So, you won’t be able to listen to it, Will, unless you have a secret language skill that you’ve not revealed. But most of the people I interviewed making English-language podcasts that I could listen to. But there were a few in German -my German is very bad- and then some in Portuguese, and some in Chinese and like, so, I couldn’t listen to them. But otherwise, every single person I interviewed, I listened to at least two of their podcasts and categorized them and so on. But yeah, in terms of this ethical dimension, I would actually say, it’s much more ethically sound than the traditional way we do ethics in academia. So, you know, as an anthropologist, really, I do research in South India. I’m an urban anthropologist, I can go and interview people and spend time with them, do participant observation. Are they 100%, fully aware of the way that the data I’m gathering there is going to be used? Not really. As much as I can explain everything to people, it’s such a different world. And some of the people I was doing research amongst were also not literate, or had very poor skills in that sense, or at least in English, so also like having someone sign a form is also a bit nonsense in that sort of condition. Everyone knows what it means now to record something and put it online. So, that’s like informed consent there, right? I know that what is going to happen to me now is I’m going to be put out there. You have to tell people of course you’re going to be edited, maybe, I’m maybe going to use part of this interview with you and combine it together with something else. So, there’s different ethical questions, and there’s different things you need to tell the people but I think it’s much more honest, in a sense, right? And in terms of being properly represented, and of course, you can misrepresent people in podcasts as well as you can in text. But of course, those are your words, your emotions in those words being put out there, and you’re valuing these people as experts in whatever you’re interviewing them about. And I mean, here expertise in a very broad sense, you know, like maybe I’m doing research amongst flower sellers in India, and they’re experts on that. But I’m valuing their expertise in such a way that I’m willing to put that out in the world. So, I think, it’s a very different form, and how it’s different from journalism, I would say, and I’m not good friends with journalists. They have a story, they need a quote for that story, right? So, they’ve put something together, it’s like, there’s just been an earthquake, I need to get a quote from the survivor who’s upset about the speed of the response, then I need to go get a quote from the construction company, then maybe from a politician, they’re not sitting down with someone for an hour exploring in a roundabout way, like deeply their motivations, and this and that, and then using an exit, rather than going there looking for that quote to put the story together. So, I think it’s quite different from journalism in that form.
Will Brehm 26:15
Yeah. It’s really quite fascinating. And I think you’re right about the ethics. It’s sort of a more ethical approach to research in a way. What about creating research sort of, quote, unquote, outputs if we were to use that very sort of managerialist term. But sort of creating research in sound, I think, opens up the possibility to be creative in different ways, right? Because if you’re trying to think about the audience and engaging the audience and making sure you don’t lose your audience, that’s the worst fear that podcasters have, you have to think about storytelling, and you have to think about how you can produce audio and soundscapes and use sound effects to engage that listenership and to tell the story, and to share the ideas and to bring this research to life, so to speak. In the research you did with these 101 podcasters, were there people creating these quote, unquote, creative podcasts engaging in storytelling in ways other than say the interview style podcast that I’m engaging with you right now?
Ian Cook 27:15
Yes, definitely. And I spoke with quite a few of those, I would say, firstly, there is also a creativity to this style of podcast as well, right? And they also happen to think about storytelling and so on, and so forth, but yeah, so there were people who were making sort of crafted audio. We can listen to two back to back. We could listen to a very short one from someone who makes interviews, which is Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed, one of the rivals of FreshEd, no? Competition across the pond. And then Kent Davies, who makes a podcast called Preserves together with students, and he’s a podcast instructor as well. We can listen to those back to back. They have quite different understandings.
Bonni Stachowiak 27:50
So, I think of myself as a storyteller, but the goal of the storytelling is to envelop people in both the art and the science of teaching and learning. So, I don’t want to pretend that the science isn’t there but I also don’t want to bore you to tears such that you would never want to learn more.
Kent Davies 28:11
So, when we are teaching audio storytelling, we’re teaching them how to find that moment of pause, or what interests them. We do a lot of interviews on a food truck. We actually have a food truck as well. So, we’ll have interviewees make us dishes on the food truck, and we’ll record them. So, it becomes like a cooking show slash history show. So, we’re interviewing them, we do a pre and post interview about their lives. But in the middle, they are cooking something. So, it becomes this kind of narrative tool that we can utilize while the meal is being made, we can jump around throughout their life or add historical context. We don’t just do interviews. I do a field recording course as well because having some action, having someone make food, or do something, or do a tour of their house or the restaurant or what have you, lends itself to segmentation, which is also something that kind of draws people in. So, there’s like an art form to trying to create these stories and I feel like the audio lends itself to telling those stories when you can actually get up and go and do things and be in the now and then also go back in time. Finding the right time period is difficult to be like we can only talk about this time period from here to here. And we might be leaving out some contexts along the way and that’s hard, I find, when it comes to putting a podcast together because there’s stuff I want to drop for the sake of the narrative. But then again, this is why we utilize footnotes within our scripts, you know, or little notes or sources or other add-ons later in the books or stuff like that, that we can follow up on that extent. You can’t put everything into a podcast but what we’re trying to find -and this is what I’m teaching the students is to find – that one thing. That moment of pause, that one thing you want to explore and then expand on it. You don’t want to have a series of things that you’re pursuing or it becomes too convoluted too much stuff. And we’re not looking to do like a three, four or five parter of certain topics. We want to touch on them. And then maybe we’ll add more within other media like a book, or a story map or something like that.
Will Brehm 30:37
It’s really fascinating to hear both of those voices. I think, when I was interviewed by you for this book, I think it was just before, or we just had started something called FreshEd Flux. And so since then, we’ve done two seasons of these rather creative narrative-based podcasts with students and what Kent and what Bonni are saying, how these research sort of productions connect to art. And I would also add entertainment as you do need to think about the engagement of the audience in a way. And it’s sort of working at that nexus between research, entertainment, and art. That you’re trying to come up with a 30-minute audio show that is rigorous in its production, is scholarly in its pursuit, is entertaining to listeners, but it’s also artistic in the use of the medium in which we’re working in it. To me, it’s such a fascinating space to have grown into and what Kent and Bonni say really resonates with me.
Ian Cook 31:39
Yeah. I also spoke with Siobhan McHugh, she’s based in Australia. She made an amazing podcast called The Art of Darkness about Aboriginal art in Australia. And she was talking about her process, which I detail in the book where she says, so for her sound is really key. So, she will never work off a transcript. She said she hates transcripts. So, she’ll go, she will make these interviews, then she will listen and then she says -I hope I remember everything completely well- that she has like a table where she’s saying, Okay, what sounds good, like and giving it different stars, you know? This is a five star bit of audio and this other thing is the information is really important but it doesn’t sound good, maybe because the person fell over the words or whatever, or they just didn’t sound good. But that’s information I need. So, maybe I’ll have to do that with a voiceover or some other way, you know. And then she creates that sort of spine, let’s say around a particular part of the story. And then she will say, Okay, now What sound do I need to tell that? If it’s a police officer talking, I’m going to need the rustling of the files in the office, or if someone’s getting into a car that, *mimics sound of door closing* then the door being slammed, you know? And then so she says, she goes, and she collects sounds all the time, and has like a sound database, so that when she needs to put stories together? Of course, you’ll want in situ real sounds but sometimes, of course, that’s not possible. Right? So, if you interview someone next to a crackling fire out in the wilderness in Australia, what do they call it in Australia? The bush? Out in the bush, the Outback out there? Then afterwards, you might need to record yourself some fire noise at home, whatever, and put it together. So, to think through all of that, I think it’s fascinating. And I’ve made lots of interview podcasts in my life like you have and now like, I went a while back to India and started to make a podcast – or not podcast, I don’t know what it’s gonna be. An audio documentary or something, or whatever it is. How to categorize it, I don’t know yet. But with one of the door to door sellers I was working with, I spent a whole month with him recording interviews with him and so on. Putting that together is gonna be tough because I have to learn a new skill, basically, right?
Will Brehm 33:42
It is! It’s so tough! I can tell you, I mean with the students we work with for FreshEd Flux, it takes like 12 months to make a 30 minute podcast. And it’s quite amazing, when we start with a lot of the students, they sort of think; I know exactly what I’m going to do, it’s going to take me six weeks, and I’ll be done. And it’s the working in sound, the thinking in sound, that is really quite hard to do. And doing it from the beginning is something we encourage. We also work with scripts, so we do a lot of writing and revision and rewriting. But you know, we quickly bring in sound. We want the sound to be on the page, in a way. It’s a really difficult process, I must say, but also really rewarding in the end. You create these just amazing sort of productions that I don’t think anyone that starts the journey thinks they would ever come up with what we ended up creating in the end. And so they’ve just been so valuable for us, and I think for FreshEd a really nice sort of step in a new direction and rather creative direction. The other thing that Kent and Bonni brought up that I was quite fascinated by was this idea of bringing this back into the classroom, right? And I guess this is something that scholarly podcasting usually affords, is that a lot of the people doing it are working in universities as well? So, to what extent are scholars who podcast bringing it into their classroom teaching?
Ian Cook 35:02
Yeah, so in many different ways, right? That’s what’s really fascinating. And I think since I did interviews for the book in 2020, it’s a fast moving landscape as well, which is great. So, you have some people who, let’s say, you work in a field, where things are really moving very fast, right? So, I interviewed a guy called Michael Abell, who works on energy things. Changing all the time, right? And so, papers get published, you know, one to two years it takes to come out. And so he’s like, “You know, what? There’s this thing we really need to know about. For my podcast, I’m gonna go and ask these experts, you know, a practitioner, I’m going to interview them, then I’m going to use that in my class. Send it as reading whatever for the students, or listening, and then like to build it in”. So, there’s people who do that, which I think is a fascinating thing. So, if you have a podcast in your field, and you’re teaching a class on it is a way of bringing in experts, or practitioners, or interlocutors in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Then there’s people who like what Kent was talking about, and like what you’re talking about with FreshEd Flux is working together with students to produce something, which is super valuable for students because they really love it. Like, they really, really get into it. Like, I’ve also worked with students to produce more like this interview style podcast. But again, it’s really, really important. They’re learning how to interview, they’re learning how to edit, they’re learning how to organize their time, and they’re making something which is public. They take it more seriously. After a while every student knows how to do a paper in a day, if they’re late with a deadline. You can’t do a podcast in a day, if you’ve not planned it, you need to go and get all the audio, put it all together. So, that’s really great as well. And then you have, of course, lots of people who will put podcasts as assignments, and so podcasts as listenings within syllabi as well, which is really, really great and I think students like this diversity of media. And I interviewed a guy, Robert Huish and he has this Global Development Primer podcast. And I think he’s really interesting. If we listen to him, then we can talk a bit more about teaching.
Robert Huish 35:02
And the idea is to try to create a repository of podcasts that it can keep up with an international development intro course in a changing world. So, I will try to do probably between three or four seasons a year, and 10 podcasts each on average. So, you’re looking maybe 40 a year that will come out. And from there, I can pick and choose what works best for whoever. Now in class, there’s two sections of the class that includes 10 modules each. So, in the class, the podcasts are stacked in this way. There’s what they call a core, and that’s very didactic. That’s me kind of lecturing to you and there’s visuals, and we’re clarifying points, I’m telling stories, we’re sharing anecdotes but that’s the basis of whatever the topic is. So, it’s neoliberalism, it’s globalization, it’s colonialism, whatever. Those all stay locked behind the university firewall. So, those do not get released. They comprise the core content of the class. And then from there, it’s not visible in the public format but in the class itself, the podcasts are categorized in two areas. One is called expert analysis and the other is development in action. And expert analysis is where I find someone who’s able to speak as an expert to the theme of that week. So, if we’re talking about colonialism, as opposed to just sitting down looking at the bullet points, or reinterpreting Edward Said or others, I’ll find someone who can discuss colonialism with me over a 30-minute chat. And then the third one is called development in action where we feature someone who’s doing active research in development. The expert analysis is key because if you’ve got a lot of students who are foreign to Canada, and English is not their first language, they may not grapple with what colonialism or neoliberalism or other sort of jargon word is just by bullet points. Rather, they can get a deeper sense of it through conversational association. So, you and I sitting down for a half hour and just chatting about it is effectively a really important tool for English as a second language learners.
Will Brehm 39:11
Really quite fascinating. I mean, the role of the professor becomes sort of curating this content across so many different mediums and pulling it together into these sort of digital learning spaces that I guess are quite common now for students in universities.
Ian Cook 39:24
Fascinating. But if I think about how I like to be as a teacher, there’s always some part of -let’s forget podcasting completely. But if I was planning a class in a non-podcasting world, I would probably have maybe 20 minutes at some point within the 100 minutes that I have, or whatever hour and a half that I have, where I might have a mini-lecture, you know, 15-20 minutes on a topic, then I would have the students try to explore something through conversation, maybe then a close reading of a text, or maybe some larger group discussion or whatever. So, it’s similar to this. You’re helping students in a way by curating knowledge, you’re helping them understand something in many different ways. So, it’s similar this has just been sort of used in a podcast form.
Will Brehm 40:03
Yeah, exactly. Using different mediums to do so. So, now that you’ve sort of thought about scholarly podcasting quite widely, I think you’ve probably talked to the most scholar podcasters in the world – 101 is quite a lot – what would you say is next for the medium? What’s next for scholarly podcasting? Or where would you like to see it go in the future?
Ian Cook 40:27
I’ll tell you my opinion. But before that, let’s have the opinion of Neil Fox, who does The Cinematologists because I think he has a good take as well.
Neil Fox 40:35
Good, let’s be utopian. I think it can liberate academia, I think that it can provide a space to do the things that academia says it wants to do, you know, culture wants to do, what industry wants to do. All this stuff saying we want to do this stuff. Well, podcasting is a space to actively do that, you know? It’s actively a way to reach outside the walls of academia in terms of where your content goes, and where your knowledge goes. It’s an active way to cultivate and welcome diverse voices, either through decolonizing curriculum, or actively kind of employing people from different backgrounds, and kind of celebrating and supporting their work and their voice and their perspective, I think it’s limitless, potentially,
Will Brehm 41:13
Do you share that idea? That it’s limitless, that it’s utopian, and it’s sort of revolutionary, it’s sort of reimagining higher education in total?
Ian Cook 41:21
I would say it could be but we have to be fully aware of the structures within which we work. And in fairness, I just put an excerpt there, for Neil, he goes on and talks about the problems with higher education. He’s also based in the UK, like yourself, and for me, the future of scholarly podcasting could go in many different ways but there’s a tension there. On the one hand, I think it should be better understood, acknowledged in the systems we have of evaluating what work we do as scholars as a quote unquote, real thing, you know? It’s not just some fluff, right? It’s actual work, it’s intellectual engagement, it’s creating knowledge, etc, and so on. And this means, I think, as a group of people who make podcasts, we need to get better at making them citable, have transcripts wherever possible, because these things are time consuming, to make sure that – we’ve not talked about it but there are podcasters who put their podcasts out for peer review, to get things reviewed in different ways, as well. And all of these things, I think, are really, really important about creating legitimacy. Have them critiqued the same way we critique other things because that’s what we do acknowledge, it’s good. So, that’s great and I think these things have to happen but at the same time, I will be wary that they get pulled into the matrices of higher education ranking and all of this complete nonsense, right? I really don’t want it to be that. I don’t want people to say, “Okay, this year, I need to produce a certain amount of articles for certain q1, q2 journal, whatever, and then I need to do a podcast that I need to do whatever, and then they just do it for that reason, just so it becomes a line on a CV, this would be terrible, right? And the same way we look at podcasting outside of scholarly worlds, you know, it started off as this really, indie DIY sort of world. You know, people in their basement just recording stuff and putting it out there in the world. And now it has become in many ways this quite say neoliberalized commercial -I didn’t want to use the word neoliberal but I just did anyway. It’s like a neoliberalized thing, or whatever. You know, some celebrity says, I want to have a podcast and they record a podcast that was terrible, you know, and they’ll instantly have more listeners than FreshEd has, right? And I don’t know how many listeners you have, I’m sure you have millions but I’m sure Prince Harry had more when he just put out one episode of a podcast and then stopped, right? And this is also a problem, right? So, in the same way, I also wouldn’t want to just become a university publicity thing. And, you know, universities, of course, like to do that. So, I think it has to keep its DIY edge, and it has to basically be -I don’t think podcasting is about saving higher education in terms of all the problems of higher education when it comes to the way knowledge is produced now in such a formal sort of way, it but it could intervene and open up new potential and new possibility to do things differently. And I think it’s a really rich, human way of being a scholar, of actually having conversations with people, being generous, being open, being collaborative, and I think that’s really, really great and really, really important and a thing we should hold on to. Because of course, I know everyone complains about their job and academics maybe complain more than other people about their jobs. But it’s fun, it’s joyous, right? It’s great fun to make a podcast. The same when you have a good class as a teacher, and it’s a great conversation. You’re like, “Yeah. This is why I do it”, right? And the same with a podcast you’re like, “Wow yeah, this is great. This is why I do this as a job. Because we’re creating stuff, we’re learning stuff, we’re following our curiosity and at the same time all of this is changing, I hope, for the better from the side, from below the structures within which we work.
Will Brehm 45:19
Well, Ian Cook, thank you so much for joining FreshEd again. I couldn’t agree with you more on how you see the future of academic podcasting. Congratulations on your new book and let me know and let us know when your podcast is out.
Ian Cook 45:32
Great. Will do. Thanks a lot, Will.
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Related Author Publications/Projects
Scholarly podcasting: Why, what, how?
Critiquing of podcasting as an anthropological method
Talking media with ‘Online Gods’: What is academic podcasting like?
Academic podcasting: Digital scholarship, communities of knowledge production and the elusive search for the public
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My Favorite Theorem by Kevin Knudson
Teaching in Higher Ed by Bonni Stachowiak
The Heart of Artness by Siobhán McHugh
Worlds in Transition by Maria Ehrnström-Fuentes
Global Development Primer by Robert Huish
A guide to academic podcasting
Podcasting as social scholarship
The PodcastRE Project: Curating and Preserving Podcasts
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The podcaster’s dilemma: Decolonizing podcasters in the era of surveillance capitalism
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