Podcasting the Humanities
Steven P. Rodriguez is a PhD candidate in history at Vanderbilt University.
The growth of podcasting has made many of us in the humanities reconsider how we interact with the public and each other. In the best of cases, the quality and rigor of these shows is as high as any academic publication or conference presentation, models of lucid, engaging public scholarship. Podcasts like NPR’s Throughline or Barry Lam’s Hi-Phi Nation, to name just a couple, give serious scholars an opportunity to share their work in a more approachable and entertaining way.
To give a sense of the influence of this one network, in December of 2021, NBN podcasts were downloaded 4.7 million times. That’s a statistic that no conference, seminar, or academic publication could ever hope to match.
In the other cases, however, the novelty of the medium itself has permitted a suspension of normal scholarly standards of rigor in favor of “hot takes.” How might we avoid the latter? And what are some of the main ethical considerations to keep in mind when creating a scholarly podcast? Is it necessary to have a team of researchers and audio engineers to make a smart, compelling humanities podcast?
I got to think about many of these issues this past January in the “Podcasting the Humanities” workshop organized by the National Humanities Center. Over the course of five days, I, along with a cohort of graduate students in the humanities from across the country, learned the nuts and bolts of podcasting and grappled with a range of ethical questions.
On the technical side, I was most struck by how simple it is to produce a podcast from start of finish. Coming in with little previous experience with producing my own podcast, I helped write, edit, and host a podcast focused on the history of transcription with three other graduate students in just five days.
On the ethical side, I participated in engaging discussions about peer-review in podcasting, accessibility, and the role of podcasting in public humanities work. These discussions did not provide definitive answers to these challenging, complex questions, but offered a framework that will inform many of my future conversations with graduate students and faculty about the topic.
But podcasting is not just about public facing work; it has the potential to change how we engage with each other and the university more generally. To touch on the first, podcasting has already made it easier for scholars to share work with one another, collaborate, and be part of larger intellectual communities. The New Books Network (NBN), founded by historian Marshall Poe in 2006, has made it easy for scholars to both share their work and connect with others passionate about their work.
To give a sense of the influence of this one network, in December of 2021, NBN podcasts were downloaded 4.7 million times. That’s a statistic that no conference, seminar, or academic publication could ever hope to match. But the point is not about metrics, but rather the way that podcasts like the NBN have already changed scholarly exchange and the way we find out about new, interesting books written by other academicians.
At the institutional level, podcasting has not yet become part of the tenure dossier at most universities, but they have embraced it in some ways. Many universities, including this one, have working groups on podcasting that help faculty and students share tips and expertise on both the technical and editorial side of the process. It is hard to say whether a rigorous, well-produced academic podcast will ever carry the same weight as an academic article at the institutional or professional level, but podcasting may become more recognized as a form of service or teaching. Whatever the institutional or professional response, podcasting has already helped many of us approach our work from a new, more creative perspective and rethink the role of humanities work more broadly.
Steven P. Rodriguez is a PhD candidate in history at Vanderbilt University. He studies the history of international education and Pan-Americanism during the first half of the twentieth century. Steven also serves as an interviewer for the New Books Network, an author-interview podcast. You can listen to his interviews here and follow his twitter @SPatrickRod.