Ian Cook, a longtime professor and social anthropologist, still remembers the first podcast he ever heard. It was a podcast version of the BBC radio show In Our Time, where a panel of academics discussed the history of ideas.
The podcast included not just the radio show, but an extended conversation, where the guests kept talking after the formal interview and covered points they didn’t have time to get to on the broadcast.
“Then it was so much more relaxed, and they would sit around and they would have a little conversation,” Cook remembers. In those moments, Cook felt the academics were being less stodgy, and more vulnerable, than he was used to hearing, acknowledging that they weren’t absolutely sure of everything they were saying and were still working out their ideas.
Cook, who is editor in chief at the experimental academic publisher Allegra Lab, ended up becoming a podcaster himself, and a fan of the growing number of podcasts made by other professors and educators. And his fascination with the form led him to write a book about the genre, “Scholarly Podcasting: Why, What, How?”
To research the volume, he interviewed 101 podcasters in education, asking them about their motivations and views on the craft. And he came away with some common themes, no matter what subject matter the podcasters taught and discussed.
Cook argues that the countless interviews that educators are conducting and posting as episodes of their own podcasts represent what he calls an “insurgency” against the way researchers typically share their work with each other and the broader public.
“I think there’s a feeling amongst a lot of people that there’s something broken about the way we produce knowledge in academia,” he says. Professors often spend years writing a paper or a book, he adds, and then it takes years or months to get published, and then read by very few people. In the last few years, as cheap digital tools have made it possible for anyone to record and broadcast audio and distribute it as a podcast, many academics have found it a way to have Socratic dialogues with other scholars that they can post for anyone to hear.
And plenty of educators are using podcasting in their teaching as well, getting students sharing conversations about ideas.
We connected with Cook to hear why and how he thinks these podcasts are changing education.
EdSurge: You quote one of the podcasters you interview, Martin Spinelli, pointing out how podcast conversations are more “vulnerable” than those in other media. Why does that matter when it comes to scholarly podcasts?
Ian Cook: There’s a lot of people who don’t necessarily trust scholars and what scholars are doing. There’s a lot of distrust in experts, and some of it is justified in the sense that when people try to question experts, sometimes people can be a bit like, ‘Oh, well you don’t understand it.’ Or they reply in such convoluted language that it’s difficult for people to penetrate the ideas.
And it seems to me that the answer to this attack on expert knowledge and on scholarly knowledge is not to retreat. It’s not to say, ‘Let’s close the walls, and let’s do our scholarship and let the plebs go and hate us.’ That seems to me to be the completely wrong move — not only arrogant, but also politically really dangerous.
Let’s open up our knowledge production processes. Let’s let people in. Let’s explain that we didn’t come to this idea by pulling it out of the sky or because we had a particular opinion about something before we started doing the research. But actually we worked it through over time, by doing this, by doing that, we had missteps, we had mis-turns, we rethought our hypotheses. And I think that’s really important and people can and want to understand this.
What are some of the ways podcasts are now used in a teaching setting?
There’s a bunch of ways, and I think it’s really exciting. Some people just switch out a written assignment for an audio assignment. And I’ve done this myself.
So firstly it forces you to actually say the same thing in much fewer words. Because let’s say a student essay of 2,000 to 3,000 words, you can’t easily read that out on a podcast. So it pushes the students to really distill things.
If it’s a podcast that involves interviews, it gives them interview skills, and it helps them build networks. It’s often public or has the potential to be public or at least be heard amongst their classmates, and so they take it much more seriously. I think after a certain amount of time, many students learn how to sort of quickly write an essay the day before the deadline.
Other people do sort of mini-lectures as podcasts and give them to their students. This is really popular amongst non-native English speakers or non-native speakers in general because higher education is extremely internationalized all over the world. And very often people struggle with a professor’s accent or, you know, certain terminology. To have something recorded, they can listen back to, is really great.
What impact do you think all this knowledge of education podcasts being out there has?
Isn’t it great that now all these super-niche topics are available to everybody? This actually came up so often in these interviews [with scholarly podcasters] that people were really surprised, and they’d get emails from people in different parts of the world, especially the very early podcasters… saying I’m a house painter somewhere and I’m just bored of listening to whatever radio is on, and some professor’s putting on his biology lectures online, and I just listen to that while I’m painting a house.
People actually are really hungry, thirsty, for deep dives into complex topics. So I think really liberating for knowledge and I think it can be a real boost for all of us who work in or at the side of scholarly knowledge production because it means, actually, you know what, often it can feel like you’re talking to yourself or you’re talking to a small group of people. But actually isn’t it great that people, and I don’t know why we should be surprised, but that people are super curious and that people actually wanted something more than what they were getting from mainstream media. Like this sort of science you used to get on mainstream media used to be this very short thing, you know, and it was never really deep and complex because there was always a time pressure. Now there’s no time pressure.
It should be a good reminder to everybody that scholarship can be public, it can be pedagogical, it can be exploratory and exciting and yet still be deeply rigorous and serious at the same time.
There was a Wired magazine article that ran just last month arguing that podcasts could unleash a new age of enlightenment. What do you think of that take?
That’s the optimistic side, and I think it’s great, and I agree with it up to a point.
But I have some pessimism, too. Together with a couple of Canadian scholars, Lori Beckstead and Hannah McGregor, we just submitted a finished manuscript for a book called “Podcast or Perish: Peer Review and Knowledge Creation for the 21st Century” — basically talking about the importance of having podcasts peer-reviewed. And when I read the article that you shared with me, I was thinking, yeah, it’s true, it is great, it’s an age of enlightenment hearing scholars discuss stuff. But we do also need to start rethinking the ways in which we evaluate these different conversations that are going around — not as a sort of gatekeeping way and not as a limiting way, but so that people know, let’s go back to the word trust.
Without naming names, we can all probably think of famous professors with podcasts who have abused their position to basically talk nonsense unchallenged. Because they wouldn’t be able to do that necessarily in a conference or in a journal article or in a book, because it would go through a review process or an editor.
So there is something greatly wonderfully liberating about the fact we can talk to everyone, but at the same time, I think we will start more and more wanting to know whether or not the thing that people are talking about is, can be subjected to a process of and a form of peer review … to make sure that people aren’t just talking out of a certain orifice.
Especially if people start to put it down there as their scholarship. People are gonna want to sort of justify this as quote unquote ‘real scholarship.’ And for that to be counted as such, people are also going to want to subject it to the rigor of different forms of peer review.
Isn’t there a danger, though, that that would take all the things you’ve said that are the best thing about podcasting out of it?
Exactly. And that’s the problem. That’s the tightrope I think we’ll have to walk. But I think the question is, ‘Are we, as people who produce knowledge, the people who are best to do that?’ I would say yes. Or are we gonna allow other people to do it?