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.]

Screen Shot 2018-11-04 at 358PM

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.

Standard
Uncategorized

Launching the Boston Research Center

Boston Bridges

Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

I’m delighted that the news is now out about the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation‘s grant to Northeastern University Library to launch the Boston Research Center. The BRC will seek to unify major archival collections related to Boston, hundreds of data sets about the city, digital modes of scholarship, and a wide array of researchers and visualization specialists to offer a seamless environment for studying and displaying Boston’s history and culture. It will be great to work with my colleagues at Northeastern and regional partners to develop this center over the coming years. Having grown up in Boston, and now having returned as an adult, it has a personal significance for me as well.

I’m also excited that the BRC will build upon, and combine, some of the signature strengths of Northeastern that drew me to the university last year. For decades, the library has been assembling and working with local communities to preserve materials and stories related to the city. We now have the archives of a number of local and regional newspapers, and the library has been active in the gathering of oral and documentary histories of nearby communities such as the Lower Roxbury Black History Project. We also have strong connections with other important regional collections and institutions, such the Boston Public Library, the Boston Library Consortium, and data sets produced by Boston’s municipal government and other sources, through our campus’s leadership in BARI.

My friends in digital humanities will know that Northeastern has a world-class array of faculty and researchers doing cutting-edge, interdisciplinary computational analysis. We have the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, the Network Science Institute, numerous faculty in our College of Arts, Media, and Design who work on digital storytelling and information design, and the library has its own terrific Digital Scholarship Group and dedicated specialists in GIS and data visualization. We will all be working together, and with many others from beyond the university, to imagine and develop large-scale projects that examine major trends and elements of Boston, such as immigration, neighborhood transformations, economic growth, and environmental changes. There will also be an opportunity for smaller-scale stories to be documented, and of course the BRC itself will be open to anyone who would like to research the city or specific communities. As a place with a long and richly documented history, with a coastal location and educational, scientific, and commercial institutions that have long involved global relationships, the study of Boston also means the study of themes that are broadly important and applicable.

My thanks to the Mellon Foundation for their generous support. It should be fascinating to watch all of this come together—stay tuned.

Standard
Uncategorized

Help Snell Library Help Others

I am extremely fortunate to work in a library, an institution that is designed to help others and to share knowledge, resources, and expertise. Snell Library is a very busy library. Every year, we have two million visits. On some weekdays we receive well over 10,000 visitors, with thousands of them in the building at one time. It’s great to see a library so fully used and appreciated.

Just as important, Snell Library fosters projects that help others in our Boston community and well beyond. Our staff has worked alongside members of the Lower Roxbury community to record, preserve, and curate oral histories of their neighborhood; with other libraries and archives to aggregate and make accessible thousands of documents related to school desegregation in Boston; and with other institutions and people to save the personal stories and images of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.

Our library is the home of the archives of a number of Boston newspapers, including the The Boston Phoenix, the Gay Community News, and the East Boston Community News, with more to come. The Digital Scholarship Group housed in the library supports many innovative projects, including the Women Writers Project and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. We have a podcast that explores new ideas and discoveries, and tries to help our audience understand the past, present, and future of our world better.

It’s National Library Week, and today is Northeastern’s Giving Day. So I have a small request of those who read my blog and might appreciate the activities of such a library as Snell: please consider a modest donation to my library to help us help others. And if at least 50 students, parents, or friends donate today—and I’d really love that to be 100, even at $10—I’ll match that with $1,000 of my own. Thank you. 

>> NU Giving Day – Give to the Library <<

Standard
Uncategorized

What’s New, Episode 14: Privacy in the Facebook Age

On the latest What’s New Podcast from Northeastern University Library, I interview Woody Hartzog, who has a new book just out this week from Harvard University Press entitled Privacy’s Blueprint: The Battle to Control the Design of New Technologies. We had a wide-ranging discussion over a half-hour, including whether (and if so, how) Facebook should be regulated by the government, how new listening devices like the Amazon Echo should be designed (and regulated), and how new European laws that go into effect in May 2018 may (or may not) affect the online landscape and privacy in the U.S.

Woody provides a plainspoken introduction to all of these complicated issues, with some truly helpful parallels to ethical and legal frameworks in other fields (such as accounting, medicine, and legal practice), and so I strongly recommend a listen to the episode if you would like to get up to speed on this important aspect of our contemporary digital lives. Given Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony today in front of Congress, it’s especially timely.

[Subscribe to What’s New on iTunes or Google Play]

Standard
Uncategorized

The Post-Coding Generation?

When I was in sixth grade our class got an Apple ][ and I fell in love for the first time. The green phosphorescence of the screen and the way text commands would lead to other text instantly appearing was magical. The true occult realm could be evoked by moving beyond the command line and into assembly language, with mysterious hexidecimal pairs producing swirling lines and shapes on the screen. It was enthralling, and led to my interest in programming at an early age. I now have an almost identical Apple ][ in the corner of my office as a totem from that time.

img_0620

Of course, very few people learn assembly language anymore, and for good reason. The history of computing is the history of successive generations of coders moving up the technical stack, from low-level languages like assembly to higher languages that put all of the rudimentary calculations behind a curtain.

I’ve been thinking about this coding escalator recently because of my kids and the still-vibrant “learn to code” movement. My kids are in their early teens and I can say as a proud parent that they are very good at all of the skills needed to be great programmers. They also go to a public school that was the archrival of the public school I went to—in the Boston-area math league. The school is filled with similar kids, sons and daughters of highly educated people, many of whom work in technical and scientific fields, or at one of Boston’s many universities.

Yet I would characterize the general interest of my kids’ generation in coding as being lukewarm. They get it, they see the power of programming, and yet they are much more interested in the creativity that can occur on top of the technical stack. I suppose we should not be surprised. They are the first generation whose interactions with computers were with devices that do not have a command line—that is, with smartphones and tablets. So naturally they are drawn to the higher-level aspects of computing, which doesn’t seem like computing at all to my generation. While some may roll their eyes at Apple adding an “Everyone Can Create” initiative this week as a counterpart to “Everyone Can Code,” my kids thought this was a truly interesting development.

To be sure, those who know how to code, and code well, will always be able to shape computer platforms and apps in powerful ways, just as those who understand what’s under the hood of their car can maximize its performance. The skills one learns in programming are broadly applicable, and under the right circumstances coding can stir the imagination about what is possible in the digital realm. But most of us just want to drive, even in a suboptimal automobile, and get somewhere for some other reason, and many “learn to code” programs are frankly not especially imaginative.

In Digital History, Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote that although they are both noble professions, “historians planning a digital project should think like architects, not like plumbers.” I suspect my kids’ generation may see coding as plumbing, and would prefer to work on the design of the overall house. I’m not sure that we have fully accounted for this next generation’s shift yet, or have even come to realize that at some point the coding escalator would reach the top, and those on it would step off.

Standard
Uncategorized

Revisiting Mills Kelly’s “Lying About the Past” 10 Years Later

If timing is everything, history professor Mills Kelly didn’t have such great timing for his infamous course “Lying About the Past.” Taught at George Mason University for the first time in 2008, and then again in 2012—both, notably, election years, although now seemingly from a distant era of democracy—the course stirred enormous controversy and then was never taught again in the face of institutional and external objections. Some of those objections understandably remain, but “Lying About the Past” now seems incredibly prescient and relevant.

Unlike other history courses, “Lying About the Past” did not focus on truths about the past, but on historical hoaxes. As a historian of Eastern Europe, Kelly knew a thing or two about how governments and other organizations can shape public opinion through the careful crafting of false, but quite believable, information. Also a digital historian, Kelly understood how modern tools like Photoshop could give even a college student the ability to create historical fakes, and then to disseminate those fakes widely online.

In 2008, students in the course collaborated on a fabricated pirate, Edward Owens, who supposedly roamed the high (or low) seas of the Chesapeake Bay in the 1870s. (In a bit of genius marketing, they called him “The Last American Pirate.”) In 2012, the class made a previously unknown New York City serial killer materialize out of “recently found” newspaper articles and other documents.

It was less the intellectual focus of the course, which was really about the nature of historical truth and the importance of careful research, than the dissemination of the hoaxes themselves that got Kelly and his classes in trouble. In perhaps an impolitic move, the students ended up adding and modifying articles on Wikipedia, and as YouTube recently discovered, you don’t mess with Wikipedia. Although much of the course was dedicated to the ethics of historical fakes, for many who looked at “Lying About the Past,” the public activities of the students crossed an ethical line.

But as we have learned over the last two years, the mechanisms of dissemination are just as important as the fake information being disseminated. A decade ago, Kelly’s students were exploring what became the dark arts of Russian trolls, putting their hoaxes on Twitter and Reddit and seeing the reactive behaviors of gullible forums. They learned a great deal about the circulation of information, especially when bits of fake history and forged documents align with political and cultural communities.

As Yoni Appelbaum, a fellow historian, assessed the outcome of “Lying About the Past” more generously than the pundits who piled on once the course circulated on cable TV:

If there’s a simple lesson in all of this, it’s that hoaxes tend to thrive in communities which exhibit high levels of trust. But on the Internet, where identities are malleable and uncertain, we all might be well advised to err on the side of skepticism.

History unfortunately shows that erring on the side of skepticism has not exactly been a widespread human trait. Indeed, “Lying About the Past” showed the opposite: that those who know just enough history to make plausible, but false, variations in its record, and then know how to push those fakes to the right circles, have the chance to alter history itself.

Maybe it’s a good time to teach some version of “Lying About the Past” again.

Standard
Uncategorized

Age of Asymmetries

Cory Doctorow’s 2008 novel Little Brother traces the fight between hacker teens and an overactive surveillance state emboldened by a terrorist attack in San Francisco. The novel details in great depth the digital tools of the hackers, especially the asymmetry of contemporary cryptography. Simply put, today’s encryption is based on mathematical functions that are really easy in one direction—multiplying two prime numbers to get a large number—and really hard in the opposite direction—figuring out the two prime numbers that were multiplied together to get that large number.

Doctorow’s speculative future also contains asymmetries that are more familiar to us. Terrorist attacks are, alas, all too easy to perpetrate and hard to prevent. On the internet, it is easy to be loud and to troll and to disseminate hate, and hard to counteract those forces and to more quietly forge bonds.

The mathematics of cryptography are immutable. There will always be an asymmetry between that which is easy and that which is hard. It is how we address the addressable asymmetries of our age, how we rebalance the unbalanced, that will determine what our future actually looks like.

Standard