Academia, Podcasts, Uncategorized

Bridging the Academic-Public Divide Through Podcasts

[The text of my keynote at the Sound Education conference at Harvard on November 2, 2018. This was the first annual conference on educational and academic podcasts, and gathered hundreds of producers of audio and podcast listeners to discuss how podcasting can effectively and engagingly reach diverse audiences interested in a wide range of scholarly fields.]

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It’s great to be back here in Andover Hall. I received a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School, and being in this chapel reminds me of what I was thinking about during my two years studying the history of religion. It is, perhaps surprisingly, germane to what I want to talk about today.

Studying religion means studying the biggest questions, the unanswerable questions. The study of religion is, necessarily, humbling. If it occasionally approaches higher truths, it also reminds us that human knowledge is woefully incomplete and fallible.

But this fallibility and the way we stumble toward the truth is not communicated regularly or well by academia to the outside world. Our formal communications take other forms that are more, shall we say, braggadocious. The academic monograph and article are necessarily shaped to show off expertise. These written forms have scholarly accoutrements, like the jewelry of footnotes, that make them dressed to impress. Mostly, of course, they are dressed to impress one’s peers.

On the other side of the academic house, press releases and magazine-like pieces from the university communications office are aimed at impressing the broader world, and to garner coverage beyond the walls of the academy. But these are also forms of writing that stay in a narrow lane, crowded as they are with spunky, crafted quotations from a world in which everything is a game-changing breakthrough.

But we’re here for podcasts. Let’s not dwell on these forms of academic expression other than to recognize them for what they are: genres. The press release and the academic article and the monograph may all be about scholarly research, but they are distinct genres, and throughout my brief remarks this morning, I want to encourage you to think about podcasts in terms of genres as well. I want you to think about the genre for your podcast.

Genres are enormously helpful structures. They are commonly agreed upon forms of communication that provide identifying signals to the audience about what they are reading, viewing, or in the case of podcasts, listening to. Genres give the audience, often unconsciously and rapidly, a general category for a creative work, which in turn colors its reception.

Genres prep the podcast listener’s ears and mind through repetition, recognition,and expectation. Conforming to a genre telegraphs structural information to the audience and makes audio more palatable and relatable.

Podcast elements like intro and outro music, for instance, are genre-building. They orient the listener, who after all might be tuning in for the first time, and communicate what kind of audio stream this is.

This conference is about podcasts, but there can be and indeed are many genres of podcasts. Podcasts no longer occupy the vast spectrum from two white guys talking about technology to three white guys talking about technology. What this conference represents is a wonderful flourishing of podcast genres.

Now we need to think more about the kinds of genres that academic work works well in, and that can take maximal advantage of the medium and have the maximal impact.

So let’s talk about how to situate educational and academic podcasts within the galaxy of possible genres.

We can take some helpful clues about this situation from other new media formats that have flourished on the web over the past quarter-century. For instance, since the advent of the web, and its ability to serve a wide array of text, in different lengths, sizes, and contexts, we have seen the birth of new genres that challenge traditional writing and break out of the constraints of print publication.

Take the blog. Originally a “web log” of interesting links, it evolved two decades ago in places like LiveJournal into personal musings and then in other platforms like MoveableType and ultimately WordPress into a fairly flexible, but always recognizable, reverse chronological, largely textual genre, one that accommodates posts of different lengths and purposes.

Because it lived on the web, and given its origins, the blog was colonized by a less formal, more freeform style that beneficially allowed academics who started blogs to loosen up a bit. I moment ago I used the word braggadocious. I would feel, shall we say, uncomfortable using that word in an academic article in my native field of history, but I’ve owned the domain dancohen.org for 20 years now and if I want to drop a braggadocious or two in a blog post there so be it.

More seriously, although the genre of the blog didn’t line up well with the strict structures needed for the peer-reviewed article, it did line up well with other aspects of academia. For instance, while the article and the book provide a final, formal genre for the results of research, they do not accommodate well, or often at all, the detailed, day-to-day research process that led up to the book or article. Indeed, most academic writing involves obscuring our processes and complexities and doubts behind the scenes, the starts and stops that happen throughout academic work, before the article or book is complete. (Note that this obscuring has led to such bad things as the replication crisis.)

The blog excels, in extraordinarily helpful ways, in portraying this process, and so we now have the distinct genre of the process blog. For example, one of the blogs I subscribe to is by a particle physicist who is providing daily updates on the fusion reactor his team is building. That is just plain cool, but will never appear in his submissions to physics journals. I have colleagues in history who blog about the ups and downs of archival research, the rare finds and the drudgery, the thousands of hours of research and writing. Those sentiments, revealed in a blog, and can enrich and humanize academic work.

Also, like a good movie, a successful article or book leaves on the cutting room floor dozens of other great scenes, half-baked but still pretty tasty thoughts, and possible connections that must wait until another time, or be forgotten forever. A blog can document the incredible swirl of evidence and thinking and knowledge that emerges out of an academic project. Blogging can be a powerful way to provide “notes from the field” and ongoing glosses in research areas that perhaps only a handful of others worldwide know much about, but that may fascinate the wider world if framed well.

Podcasts provide a fantastic opportunity, in many ways much better than the blog, to communicate the complex processes involved in acquiring new knowledge and passing it on to students and the public, and to show the bumps along the road, and the methods and heartache and excitement along the way.

For instance, last week on our What’s New podcast, we had a brilliant young biochemist, Heather Clark, on to talk about the nanosensors her lab is creating to determine the level of certain chemicals in the body. They custom design extraordinarily tiny molecules that light up when they find lithium or sodium in the bloodstream, and an electronic tattoo on the skin can then register and transmit that information.

This is truly the stuff of science fiction, but the best part of the podcast was Heather’s response to my question about how such nanotechnology is actually created. We hear this word “nanotechnology” all the time in the news, but do you have any idea what it actually looks like in practice? I didn’t. So I asked Heather to describe what goes on in her lab during a normal day. And she digressed into a remarkable discussion of how making nanosensors actually looks a lot like making salad dressing—literally mixing various oils and ingredients together to make the right blend. And she’s laughing as she’s describing this process because on the one hand it’s kitchen counter work, but on the other hand it’s a profound synthesis of physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering.

As Heather revealed these scientific principles and bench-science techniques, I couldn’t help but think of how magical, alchemical, her work is. Indeed, podcasts can frame academic expertise in a way that can thrill an audience because of this magical element. Teller, the shorter, quieter magician in Penn & Teller, has made the point that a big part of what makes magic what it is is that magicians will spend an unbelievable amount of time practicing a very specific skill or pursuing a trick, far more time than the audience considers humanly possible.

By this definition there is a lot of magic in the academy. Our colleagues spend years or even decades deciphering papyri, learning long-lost languages, trying to solve fantastically complex mathematical theorems, or tracking down the smallest bits of evidence or assembling the largest imaginable data sets. Audio, done well, can display this incredible obsession to audiences, and as Teller notes, revealing how a magic trick is done—by grit and practice and sheer will—often enhances appreciation for magic rather than dissipating it.

Finally, and most importantly, podcasts have an unparalleled ability to convey the reality of academic work, and inculcate appreciation of it—better than the blog because of the nature of audio and especially the unique character of the human voice. From the time we are babies, we respond differently to voices than to other sounds in our world. As the most social of animals, we are incredibly adept at picking up subtle cues from the human voice—excitement, nervousness, ambivalence, assurance.

The human voice can thus communicate one’s humanity to the listener in a way that most academic writing has enormous trouble with—and as I noted earlier, was never really structured to do.

But it has to be the right type of voice, a topic of many of the sessions at this conference today. If you are an academic, are you projecting a know-it-all voice, the voice of the article and the academic monograph, or the more cautious, thoughtful voice that is really in your head as you pursue your research? Are you merely recounting the end results of a process, or pulling the curtain back and showing the human—and often engrossing—processes behind the discoveries?

Academic podcasts are often criticized as raw and unedited, but they can take advantage of this lack of polish in comparison to a monograph or an article. In podcasts, we can hear a potent and unique combination of the expertise of academics with the informality of extemporaneous speech.

Done well, educational podcasts as a whole, the range of podcasts represented here today, can foster audiences who may not always agree with us or our research or conclusions, but who can grasp much more deeply the very human pursuits of the academy and see how those pursuits relate to their own lives. Critically, this has never been more important, as there is a growing skepticism about the value of the academy. All universities are struggling with how to communicate their worth to the public.

In his recent book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, literary scholar Alan Jacobs calls on us to foster what he calls “like-hearted, rather than like-minded” audiences. We are never to get everyone to agree with us about everything, but that shouldn’t be our ultimate goal. We should instead seek to cultivate receptivity to academic subjects again, and that hard work isn’t being adequately done through our formal writing or press releases. Podcasts give us the opportunity to show the humanity and relevance and relatability of academic practice, something that significant portions of the public have lost sight of.

Your podcast can be an important addition to this humanizing goal, one more step in expanding the audience of curious listeners, and the general population of the like-hearted.

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Podcasts

What’s New, Season Two

Last week we launched the second season of the What’s New podcast. My first guest was Dan Kennedy, who studies journalism and new media, and has a new book out on the changes happening right now to newspapers like the Washington Post. Dan’s got some great commentary on the difficulties of newspapers since the web emerged in the 1990s, the role of journalistic objectivity in the face of “fake news” criticism, and why someone like Jeff Bezos might want to buy the Post. His special focus on the future of news and newspapers is especially relevant right now. Do give it a listen.

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I’m also really excited about our fall lineup, which includes Tina Eliassi-Rad talking about bias in artificial intelligence algorithms, Margaret Burnham on the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project, and David Herlihy on the changes to the music industry in an age of streaming. In addition, close to the November election, former Governor Michael Dukakis will join us on the program.

To receive all of these shows and more, you can subscribe to What’s New on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks in advance for tuning in—hope you enjoy the new season.

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Podcasts

Looking Back at Season 1 of the What’s New Podcast, and Ahead to Season 2

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When I arrived at Northeastern University a year ago, I wanted to start a new podcast that highlighted new ideas and discoveries through interviews with a wide range of faculty and researchers. Snell Library has incredible facilities not only for quiet study but also for the production of media and digital scholarship, and so it was natural to use our professional recording studio and the expertise of our staff to create this podcast. The result was What’s New, which wrapped up its first season a couple of months ago.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I had a prior podcast, Digital Campus, which began in 2007, during the first wave of podcasting. Created with my friends at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, it was a roundtable discussion of how digital media and technology were affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums. Digital Campus lasted through 2015, and built up a nice audience of fellow practitioners in digital humanities, academia, and cultural heritage institutions over those eight years.

With What’s New I wanted to draw on a larger canvas than Digital Campus, and try to reach an even larger audience. This wasn’t purely populist. In part the new podcast was my audio answer to the ongoing question about the social role and value of the academy; to me, that answer is not very complicated, and can be seen just by walking around a campus and talking to people. For the most part, despite all of the criticism and hand-wringing, universities still foster the people, environment, time, and resources to allow us to delve into topics far more deeply than anywhere else, and that process leads to profound, applicable, and enriching ideas in the broadest sense: not only scientific and technical breakthroughs but also a better understanding of ourselves as human beings.

Think about the difference between a blog post and a book: one can be tossed off in an afternoon at a coffee shop, while the other generally requires years of thought and careful writing. Not all books are perfect — far from it — but at least authors have to wrestle with their subject matter more rigorously than in any other context, look at what others have written in their area, and situate their writing within that network of thought and research.

Podcasts have generally been more off the cuff than rigorous. Sure, there are now many NPR, BBC, and other podcasts that are professional and well-produced, but a majority of podcasts are still unedited conversations. Sometimes that format can work well — I’m biased, but I think Digital Campus was fun to listen to, in part because we were friends and could joke with each other, or quickly grasp where one of us was going with a topic and then riff off of that.

Before launching, we had a lot of discussions about the structure and tone of What’s New, and settled on a simple half-hour interview format that we thought would go deep enough into a topic but not exhaustively so, and that would not be casual conversation that dragged on for an hour or two. That gave us the opportunity to cover a number of challenging topics and do them justice, while not being exhaustive. We left it to the listener to learn more through links, by reading a related book, etc.

I’m thrilled with how the first season went, audience-wise. Last time I checked we had over 30,000 streams so far, and the weekly numbers continue to grow. I’ve really enjoyed reading articles and books on topics I know nothing about and then having 30 minutes to frame complicated subjects in plainspoken ways, and to ask some probing questions of the guests on the show. It’s allowed me to get to know the incredible faculty at Northeastern, and to promote their work. (At the end of the season, we had a special guest from off campus, and that is likely to happen more in the future.)

If there’s one bit of self-criticism, the format of What’s New, especially within the strictures of a professional recording studio, could occasionally come across as a bit too formal, and so as we think ahead to Season 2, we’re going to sprinkle in some looser elements. We’re changing up the sound design a bit and recording the podcast outside of the studio, potentially with sounds from the field (e.g., within a lab). There will be a new, less ponderous theme song. I think I got better and less stiff as an interviewer as the season went on, but I’ll be working on that too; I have to admit to being used to being the interviewee rather than the interviewer.

For now, it’s a good time to catch up on Season 1 if you haven’t done so already, and subscribe to the podcast (just use one of the links at the top of the What’s New site) for the launch of Season 2 in September. Here are the episodes from Season 1:

1. How We Respond to Disaster – how cities bounce back from natural disasters or terrorism

2. Fake News and the Next Generation – the news consumption habits of young people, and the elusiveness of the truth

3. The Steamship Revolution – the spaceships of the 19th century

4. Enabling Engineering – an incredible group that designs devices for those with physical and cognitive disabilities

5. Inventing Writing – a fascinating story of how the Cherokee language went from oral to written

6. The Secrets of Hollywood Storytelling – a screenwriter and film producer on how movies are written and sonically designed

7. Tracking the Invisible Infrastructure of Our Cities – what you learn when you attach GPS devices to your trash

8. The Algorithms That Shape Our Lives – clever methods reveal how Facebook, Amazon, and other big internet companies work

9. The Hidden Universe of Comics – beyond the superheroes you see at the multiplex

10. Designing for Diversity – how to design digital systems to be more attentive to the true diversity of humanity

11. The Future of Energy – adding solar power to the grid is not so simple

12. Fractivism – how communities are responding to this new energy production method

13. The Evolution of Cities – the collision of people, transportation, and buildings as seen through the eyes of a city planner

14. Privacy in the Facebook Age – or what’s left of it, and whether regulation will help

15. Addressing Neglected Diseases – discovering vaccines and cures for these diseases requires a completely different model

16. Engineering the Future: Boston’s Big Dig – inside one of the biggest engineering projects in history, from its primary engineer and advocate

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Engineering, Podcasts, Transportation

The Big Dig and the Nature of Large Engineering Projects

I was fortunate to sit down for a rare interview with Fred Salvucci on the final episode of this season of the What’s New podcast. Fred is now at MIT, but he is well-known in the Boston area for conceiving and being the champion of a massive engineering project which came to be known as the Big Dig, and which completely transformed the city of Boston for the twenty-first century.

For most of its postwar existence, downtown Boston was split by a giant elevated highway called the Central Artery. The Artery was an artifact common to many cities in twentieth-century America, a terrible byproduct of the car-centric culture and suburbanization that flourished in the 1950s. Elevated roadways were aggressively cut through small-scale livable neighborhoods so that people could get into the city from the suburbs, and so that others could drive through a city without entering its local roadways on their way to distant destinations. Homes were often taken from people to make way for these elevated highways, and the walkability and attractiveness of cities suffered.

The Big Dig not only put the Central Artery underground, but added a massive linear park in the center of Boston, a marquee bridge that aptly reflected the famous Bunker Hill Monument, and another tunnel to Logan Airport. It thus completely reshaped the city and improved not only its transportation, but Boston’s skyline and its ground-level fabric and beauty. It reconnected neighborhoods and people.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Fred spoke to me about how the Big Dig was engineered—it was one of the biggest engineering projects in history, at a cost of $15 billion, through a 400-year-old city ($1 billion just to relocate ancient pipes and wires)—but also how he was able to get so many people on board for such a gigantic project. Indeed, as you’ll hear, Fred saw it more as a political and socio-economic project than a transportation initiative.

Moreover, Fred provides some good thoughts about the future of transportation, including the impact (likely negative, in his view) of self-driving cars, and whether we can ever find the will—and the funds—to do something like the Big Dig again. Do tune in.

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Cities, Design, History, Podcasts, Transportation

Activism, Community Input, and the Evolution of Cities: My Interview with Ted Landsmark

I’ve had a dozen great guests on the What’s New podcast, but this week’s episode features a true legend: Ted Landsmark. He is probably best known as the subject of a shocking Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph showing a gang of white teens at a rally against school desegregation attacking him with an American flag. The image became a symbol of tense race relations in the 1970s, not only in Boston but nationwide.

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(photo credits: Stanley Forman/Brian Fluharty)

He should be better known, however, for his decades of work shaping the city of Boston and the greater Boston area, and for his leadership in education, transportation planning, architecture, and other critical aspects of the fabric of the city. The assault on him on City Hall Plaza in Boston only intensified his activism, and set him on a path to be at the center of how the city would be developed over the last 40 years. It’s a remarkable story.

On the podcast Ted Landsmark recounts not only this personal history, but the history of a Boston in general, and he provides a 360-degree view of how cities are designed, managed, and are responsive (or unresponsive) to community needs and desires. His sense of how urban feedback systems work, from local politics to technology like the 311 phone number many cities have implemented to hear from their citizens, is especially smart and helpful.

I hope you’ll tune in.

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Podcasts

Introducing the What’s New Podcast

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My new podcast, What’s New, has launched, and I’m truly excited about the opportunity to explore new ideas and discoveries on the show. What’s New will cover a wide range of topics, from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and technology, and it is intended for anyone who wants to learn new things. I hope that you’ll subscribe today on iTunes, Google Play, or SoundCloud.

I hugely enjoyed doing the Digital Campus podcast that ran from 2007-2015, and so I’m thrilled to return to this medium. Unlike Digital Campus, which took the format of a roundtable with several colleagues from George Mason University, on What’s New I’ll be speaking largely one-on-one with experts, at Northeastern University and well beyond, to understand how their research is changing our understanding of the world, and might improve the human condition. In a half-hour podcast you’ll come away with a better sense of cutting-edge scientific and medical discoveries, the latest in public policy and social movements, and the newest insights of literature and history.

I know that the world seems impossibly complex and troubling right now, but one of themes of What’s New is that while we’re all paying closer attention to the loud drumbeat of social media, there are people in many disciplines making quieter advances, innovations, and creative works that may enlighten and help us in the near future. So if you’re looking for a podcast with a little bit of optimism to go along with the frank discussion of the difficulties we undoubtedly face, What’s New is for you.

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Academia, Podcasts, Scholarship, Web

Critical Elements of Web Culture Scholars Should Understand

The Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia has posted audio recordings of sessions from “The Humanities in a Digital Age,” a symposium that took place in November at UVA’s new Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures. My keynote at the symposium was entitled “Humanities Scholars and the Web: Past, Present, Future,” and focused on what I believe are three critical elements of the web that scholars tend to overlook, or that cause concern because they upset certain academic conventions:

1) The openness and standards of the web produce generative platforms. The magic of the web is that from relatively simple technical specifications and interoperability arise an incredibly varied and constantly innovative set of genres. For those wedded to traditional forms such as the book and article, this can be difficult to understand and accept.

2) Interfaces shape genres. Tracing the history of web applications used to make blogs, from early link aggregators to the blank page of WordPress 3’s full-screen writing environment, shows this in action. Humanities blogs shifted in helpful ways over the last 15 years, into modes that should be more acceptable to the academy, as these interfaces changed. Being in control of these interfaces is important as we continue to develop online scholarship.

3) Communities define practice. Conventions around web genres are created by those participating in them. This has serious implications for what the academy might be able to do with the web in the future.

You can hear about these three main points and much more in the talk, which is available as a podcast or audio stream near the bottom of this page. Part of the talk comes from chapter 1 of The Ivory Tower and the Open Web.

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