Response by podcast creator Hannah McGregor
Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University
Co-creator of Witch, Please, a feminist podcast on the Harry Potter world
Creator of the weekly podcast Secret Feminist Agenda
An opening note: I was deeply nervous about this peer review process, in a way that I have not experienced since getting the reviews for my very first journal article nine years ago (wow hi I am old). The work I’ve been doing in Secret Feminist Agenda feels deeply personal in a way none of my other scholarship has felt. By speaking in my own voice, about my body and my mental health and my sexuality and my intimate relationships, I’m working to model a form of feminist scholarship that makes space for vulnerability—and that includes the vulnerability of an open peer review model, in which everyone gets to read what people think about my work! I want to register this vulnerability, and this anxiousness on my part, as well as my gratitude for the generosity modelled in Cheryl and Amanda’s reviews.
As I read their answers, a key impression I garnered was that of a shared (shared with each other, shared with me) frustration or impatience with scholarly conventions including tenure and promotion committees and peer review itself. These conventions, their comments suggest, encourage conservatism in scholarly work rather than innovation, and they question in different ways whether we should be attempting to find space for podcasting within conventional structures or doing away with those structures altogether. And, to be frank, that anarchic attitude has a lot of appeal to me, though I recognize that it may not be feasible (and may not, ultimately, produce the results we’re hoping for).
At stake for me in this process is, first, to determine if we agree that work like SFA matters, and second, to figure out how to support it. Cheryl and Amanda seem to agree that it does matter, but on the second point they differ in productive and generative ways. Should we call podcasting research by expanding the definition of research, or should we call it service and insist that service ought to be valued more highly? Or should we, perhaps, call it something else altogether and do away with the research/service/teaching categories that, in their rigidity, exclude too many kinds of valuable work? While these reviewers may not be entirely convinced about the value of the peer review process in this format, for me their responses have helped to focus my thinking around these key questions and highlighted key next steps for this project.
A. Podcast Form
1. It is the contention of this pilot podcast project that the form of the podcast presents scholars with the opportunity to experiment with new modes and means of scholarly communication. Do you agree with this contention? In what ways does this particular podcast series demonstrate the potential of the medium for scholarly dissemination? Are there specific ways in which you think the series could be improved in order to take advantage of the form as a way to engage listeners in new lines of scholarly inquiry?
What strikes me about Cheryl and Amanda’s responses is something I hadn’t quite articulated about Secret Feminist Agenda myself: it is a podcast first. Podcasting is by no means a new medium to scholars, and Cheryl alludes to the incorporation of podcasts into online journals designed to incorporate multimedia scholarship. (I’ve experimented with podcasts on journal platforms in the context of the classroom, via a collaboration with OJS/PKP.). But SFA operates first and foremost in the media ecosystem (including discoverability and promotion methods, forms of listeners feedback, and productions norms) of podcasts, rather than of scholarship. Cheryl refers to this approach as “forceful,” which I love. Amanda points out that the format is “more common in podcasting than in scholarship,” thus pointing to the way SFA follows the conventions of podcasting first. Interestingly, neither reviewer links this podcastiness to a lack of scholarliness. Instead they focus on what the podcast as a medium can do: for example, the capacity of serial media to build engaged audiences over time, the intimacy generated by the podcast’s orality, and the accessibility to non-scholarly audiences (Cheryl refers to the podcast as “intellectually welcoming”).
Both reviewers also offer helpful suggestions on improving SFA’s capacity to use the conventions of the podcast in a way that maintains, and even enhances, its potential for scholarly intervention (that is, both for communicating scholarly ideas and for intervening into our ideas about scholarship). Cheryl calls for more detailed show notes with a full bibliography rather than selected readings—a task that will be easier to do, she points out, once transcriptions are available. Transcriptions are a key priority of SFA at this moment. Amanda also points to the need for greater structure in the form of defined segments or repeated questions.
I’ll respond further to this below, but I think one of the most noticeable weaknesses of the first season of SFA is my inexperience with the interview form alongside my determination to end recordings when they hit the 20-minute mark. In the second season I’ve adjusted the format in response to listeners’ desire for longer interviews. While I think the interviews in the second season have improved, in part due to my greater experience and in part due to my allowing them more time to unfold, I really like Amanda’s suggestion of overarching questions. This could be incorporated into another mini-arc such as the one I did in season 2 on “play.”
2. The podcast currently includes a first season of 15 episodes. Please identify the episodes you listened to for the sake of this report. What, in your view, is the overarching structure of this 15-episode series? Does the podcast as a whole have a discernible scholarly intent informing its approach to its subject(s)? If so, what about the podcast defines it as scholarly? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the overall form of this first series?
First off, it never occurred to me that, as Cheryl points out, my name doesn’t appear in the episode notes! See, this is why peer review is a great idea. The key point I’d like to pull out of these responses is Cheryl’s question about being done. Digital Humanities Quarterly had a special cluster way back in 2009 on being “done” in digital humanities projects. I cite this not for Cheryl, who is certainly familiar with it, but to generally point out that, for the past decade, digital humanists have been theorizing challenges in non-traditional scholarly knowledge production in ways that are pertinent to podcasts. The seriality and ongoing nature of SFA is part of its strength: I can build an audience, develop my interview skills, experiment with format, and model publicly my own process of learning as a feminist and a scholar. But sustainability has been and will continue to be an issue.
This is the plan I would like to propose: three peer-reviewed seasons, each consisting of 15 interviews (in the season 2 format, that will mean 30 total episodes), with a hiatus between each one. At the end of the third season, which will extend well into 2019, we (as in Siobhan/WLUP and I) will evaluate the status of the podcast and decide whether it should be continued, and whether in its continued form it needs further peer review.
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the structure of the individual episodes? Is the length of the episodes in keeping with the aims and scope of the episodes?
As I have already mentioned, I changed the format in season 2 in response to listener feedback, particularly a desire for longer interview episodes. The season 2 format features “minisodes” in which I speak on a topic of my choosing, framing it as my secret feminist agenda for the week; minisode episodes conclude with Kaarina’s Self-Care Corner. These alternate with full-length interview episodes, which vary from about 40-60 minutes. I have the impression this format shift has changed how listeners engage; I believe people are more likely to put off the interview episodes until they have time for them, whereas a 30-minute format is less intimidating. I often have higher immediate download numbers for the minisodes, but the interview episodes have long tails.
I’m intrigued by Amanda’s point about consistent length, as it speaks in general to an association of format consistency with professionalism in podcasting. I believe this association comes from the way that podcasts are still dominated by shows like This American Life and Radiolab, which need to be consistent because they are being broadcast on public radio. The conventions of regular length and regular format are, I believe, functions of podcasts as remediations of a particular genre of radio. At the same time, podcasts are developing their own medium-specific format conventions—Amanda points to these as well, when she talks about the development of new segments on a regular basis. I would propose that varying structure and length are a function of the born-digital nature of the podcast, and that there are interesting things to be done with this variability, including alternating between minisodes and full-length interview episodes (another example of a podcast that exploits this affordance is The Secret Life of Canada).
4. Is the apparatus associated with the podcast (including links posted with each episode and related social media sites) scholarly? If not, how might it be strengthened to meet scholarly standards?
As I mentioned above, I agree with Cheryl that transcriptions are mandatory for accessibility, but had not thought about how they will help with the development and maintenance of a scholarly apparatus. My research assistant and I are working to develop a method for transcription that will be sustainable from a financial and labour perspective. We’re considering inexpensive automated transcription services accompanied by crowd-sourced listener correction. The next step will be to develop an interface for transcription to happen and to be made available.
Amanda’s fascinating response—“no, it’s not scholarly, but who cares?”—points to a productive tension throughout the two reviews. That tension is between a belief that what we define as scholarly/scholarship should be transformed to make space for the kind of work SFA is doing, and a belief that what we define as worthwhile work for scholars to be doing should be expanded to make space for non-scholarly activities like SFA. These responses are two sides of the same coin, both suggesting that yes, this work is important, but no, it doesn’t fit into the scholarly ecosystem as it currently exists. The question raised is what kind of transformation is needed: greater valuing of service-oriented work that includes knowledge mobilization and public engagement, or an expansion/redefinition of what counts as research? Addressing the necessity of some kind of transformation is certainly part of this project, though, and will take the form of WLUP approaching university administrators with a similar set of questions about how we can build the space for scholarly podcasting within universities.
5. One of the specific aims of this pilot podcast is to engage the form of the podcast as an object of research production. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the series as an expression of scholarly research engagement?
As a continuation of the point above, Cheryl and Amanda’s responses here are divided. Cheryl argues that something becomes scholarly when we subject it to the rigours of scholarly production, framing this argument within the important history of evaluating multimedia scholarship. Amanda, on the other hand, does not see the podcast as contributing new knowledge, but pushes back against that whole structure of the research/service/teaching triumvirate because of what it excludes. The question, in both cases, is what counts as scholarship (and, implicitly, why)?
Cheryl proposes a definition that is as good a summary of what constitutes scholarship as any I’ve encountered: it produces new knowledge, expands a field, models new methodologies, cites existing scholarship, and tests new forms of knowledge production and distribution. Presumably it needn’t do all of those things simultaneously. This definition is appealing in the breadth of what it encompasses. That breadth is probably also the grounds upon which some scholars would challenge it. Amanda suggests such a challenge when she distinguishes between research, which produces new knowledge, and other kinds of scholarly communication (emphasis on the communication) which emphasize knowledge exchange, dissemination, and conversation. She refers to the podcast as a “human and friendly and modern way” to include people in scholarly conversations. Most importantly, she makes the point that “scholarship would have a lot more impact if it would let scholars in to its hallowed halls more easily and would let scholars’ ideas out in the world by more gates.” Scholarly podcasting as a project necessarily goes hand-in-hand with a critique of traditional modes of scholarly gatekeeping. Amanda and Cheryl agree on that; where they seem to disagree (though, I’d venture, productively) is the role that peer review plays in this transformed version of scholarly communication.
I want to linger for a moment on the association of research with producing new knowledge, and ask why we fixate upon the new in academia while denigrating communication, exchange, dialogue. Prioritizing the latter is, I believe, one of the key interventions of Secret Feminist Agenda, though it is certainly not an innovation: this is an argument that feminist scholars and BIPOC scholars have been making for decades. The fixation on the new is a neoliberal preoccupation with research as a quantifiable outcome. But we’ll get to quantifiability and its problems below.
B. Podcast Content
1. What, if anything, is the principle scholarly concern, or central argument, of the podcast series? What is the guiding scholarly methodology of the podcast series? Is it clear? If not, how might its methods be made more evident without sacrificing the tone of the podcast?
A fascinating question emerges from the responses here, which is, roughly: is feminism a methodology? Cheryl suggests it is, defining it as “to uncover and bring to light what doesn’t or can’t have a voice/be seen/etc.” Amanda points to a kind of intervention the podcast is making—“If feminists have historically been considered humorless activists, this podcast helps debunk that stereotype”—but ultimately asserts that “podcasts don’t have methodologies.” Podcasting itself is of course not a methodology but a medium, with media conventions, and the interview is a form or a genre, also not a methodology. But can dialogue be method, or curation? Feminism is undoubtedly the principle scholarly concern of SFA, but can it also be a method? This is a question too big to tackle in this peer review response, but perhaps a viable topic for a research paper emerging from the work SFA is doing, or a podcast episode, or both!
2. To what audience(s) is the podcast directed? To what discipline(s) in particular, if any?
It was curious to me to see a divide here between whether the audience was public and scholarly or purely scholarly. To satisfy my curiosity, I created an informal Twitter poll asking SFA listeners to identify themselves as scholarly or note. Here are the responses:
I’m intrigued by this even divide between listeners who identify as “scholarly” and those who question their inclusion in that category (many followed up to engage with me on the question of what constitutes a scholar); I also want to note the 25% who strongly do not identify as scholars. My impression is that a significant proportion of SFA listeners are liminally located in relation to academia: former students who miss the opportunity to engage deeply with these conversations, current students who often feel excluded from traditional forms of scholarly communication, and scholars who share my (and the reviewers’) dissatisfaction with traditional forms of scholarship. This liminality is something I’ll tackle a little more fully below, in C3.
3. Each podcast episode includes a reflective introductory piece and a feature conversation with guest(s). Each episode is accompanied by textual apparatus (e.g. episode notes; external links; references), as well as the podcaster’s associated website and social media platforms. Do you have any suggestions for the improvement of the podcast related to these various components with respect to their style, structure, format, features?
To summarize the changes I’m going to make: transcriptions, more thorough citations, greater structure in interviews, possibly experiment with new segments! Fun! Also I can absolutely buy a second microphone so that both speakers are miked. And while I’m at it I can finally buy some mic stands.
4. In light of the aims of this pilot scholarly podcast series, which of the episodes you have considered (please identify them) were the strongest and which were the weakest? Why?
Cheryl and Amanda’s responses here are strikingly similar to the responses listeners gave when I asked them to reflect on the podcast. For the most part, it seems a weak episode is mostly an episode that doesn’t resonate with a particular listener, and that kind of weakness is both an inevitability of the serially produced podcast and not, I think, an overall failing. That said, there are ways to minimize weak episodes and to learn from the ones that are generally more popular. The key, to echo Amanda, is structure, and structure comes from increasing my skill as both an interview and an editor (moreso the former, because I can’t edit what isn’t there). I do believe this focus is improving in the second season both as I invite guests with a more specific purpose (rather than drawing on people I already know) and as I become better-versed in interviewing. I can only presume that my interviewing skills, and thus the structure and overall quality of episodes, will continue to improve.
1. Does the podcast series, as it stands, make a significant contribution to its field(s)?
Cheryl references Translational Science here, which I had to go look up. According to Wikipedia, Translational Research “aims to ‘translate’ findings in fundamental research into medical practice and meaningful health outcomes.” I love this idea as a framework for what SFA is doing: translating theoretical scholarship into practice and meaningful outcomes. A question this raises for me is how we might evaluate the success of this translation in a humanities context. What constitutes improved outcomes for feminist knowledge translation? The basic metrics of listener numbers seem inadequately blunt, but peer review can’t necessarily get at this, either. Would a more rigorous (I mean, more rigorous than the comments field on a WordPress site or a hasty Twitter poll) study of listeners be useful? Or perhaps listener feedback is what matters, in whatever forms listeners choose to offer it: as blog comments, iTunes reviews, emails and DMs and Tweets.
2. What are the competing and comparable podcasts in the field(s), and how does this one relate to them?
Call Your Girlfriend was certainly on my mind as I developed Secret Feminist Agenda, as was Another Round. I’ve also been inspired by pop culture scholar Karen Tongson’s work on Pop Rocket. Since I started SFA, the new Secret Life of Canada has been another key inspiration. I’ll add Slate’s Represent, Digital Campus, The History Guys, and LibraryLab to my listening queue.
3. What are the competing and comparable books in the field(s), and how does the podcast relate to them?
It’s significant here that both reviewers resist this comparison to books. The podcast, their comments make clear, is not a remediation of the scholarly monograph or even of the popular scholarly book. Rather, it is doing something fundamentally different that is oriented around the affordances of podcasting. That said, it’s also really interesting that the comp title both looked to is Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, even if Amanda makes the point that SFA is “less accessible” and “less aimed squarely at a public audience.” Ultimately, as I mentioned above, I think of SFA as a hybrid creature that is neither squarely public nor fully/traditionally scholarly, but is playing at the edges of different publishing conventions. And I think podcasts handle this kind of hybridity and liminality remarkably well.
4. If you were to assess the potential of a peer-reviewed podcast series to contribute new scholarship to a particular field, to which scholarly form would a podcast series be comparable: A monograph, an edited collection, a special issue of a journal article, a journal article, none of these? Why?
I promised above to return to the question of quantifiability and the neoliberal university, and this is the place to do so. Cheryl summarizes my own feelings on the topic when she says that quantifiability is “so useless in the humanities.” She proposes the concept of “heft” as a way of shifting the conversation away from quantity and towards, I gather, a version of quality. Amanda, on the other hand, suggests that the podcast is more closely aligned with other kinds of organizing work such as running a journal or a speaker series—work which is, of course, disproportionately done by women scholars and deeply undervalued despite its centrality to all forms of scholarly communication.
Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne have written movingly about the legacy of feminist scholar Barbara Godard, whose “decision to engage in collaborative editorial work did little to support her status within official academic hierarchies,” culminating in her being denied a distinguished research professorship because “she had not authored a scholarly monograph.”1 And yet, they assert, her work of “making connections between people and across communities separated by disciplinary divides and artistic practices as well as geography and generations,” despite being systematically “undervalued by the institution she called home for so many years,” was indeed valuable as what they call “affective labour.”2 I think of SFA as a similar kind of affective labour that is more concerned with knowledge exchange and community building than it is with the conventional forms of scholarship that tenure committees seem to still privilege.
5. Because this pilot scholarly podcast represents, equally, an experiment with the role of peer review in the production of such a podcast series, would you please comment on the following aspects of the peer review:
• In light of your response to question #4, how many podcast episodes should a peer reviewer be asked to assess? Does your answer relate more to the number of hours’ listening or to your ability to answer fully the questions asked regarding the content and form of the podcast episodes and season?
I think what both Cheryl and Amanda’s responses suggest is that this peer review formatting is more properly peer review of the project of scholarly podcasting, and as such is more meta that an actual podcast peer review would be. It suggests to me that we may want to more meaningfully distinguish between the feedback we’re requesting on the research project on scholarly podcast and the review of SFA itself. The question of how to best review SFA itself is another question, which I’ll tackle below.
• Are the questions, as formed, suitably thorough, in your view, to provide a podcaster and the Press editor with useful and detailed feedback to ensure the scholarly quality of a podcast series? Are there questions you think should be asked of peer reviewers of podcasts that were not? If so, what are they?
• In light of your response to question #4, if a podcast series intends to be open-ended, with no scheduled end to its production, how many rounds of peer review, and with what frequency, do you feel it would be necessary to ensure the ongoing quality of the podcast?
• Does the open peer review process add value—editorial, production, other—to the podcast series? Could the same, or greater, value be provided to the podcaster and Press with a blind review?
I’m going to address the rest of the responses here, because cumulatively they make a really interesting point about how we might best peer review a podcast. Amanda indicates clearly that the most appropriate method is through the forms of feedback and response that already exist within the publishing ecosystem of podcasts: iTunes reviews, social media responses, website comments, emails, etc. And, as a podcaster, I agree with her. The 52 comments I received from listeners after the first season, alongside regular emails with topic suggestions or episode feedback, social media interaction, and in-person conversations, are more valuable on a week-by-week basis than formal peer review could ever be. Those forms of feedback are timely, responsive, and genuine, coming as they do from people who have made the choice to listen to and engage with the podcast. I take that feedback seriously, and I incorporate it into the podcast as I go.
At the same time, I do think there’s an important role to be played by more formal and evaluative peer review that considers the podcast as a project, both because of the work that it does legitimizing non-traditional scholarship and because of the different kinds of perspectives that come from scholars well-versed in topics such as digital scholarship. That said, I love Cheryl’s suggestion for a dialogue-based peer review and am reminded of Ted Riecken’s exploratory scholarly podcast and the dialogue he staged with his peer reviewers as a follow-up3. I look forward to talking with Siobhan further about possibilities for experimenting with the format of peer review moving forward and to reading more widely into examples of collaborative and open peer review, including Cheryl’s work.
1 Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne, “Labours of Love and Cutting Remarks: The Affective Economies of Editing,” in Editing as Cultural Practice in Canada, ed. Dean Irvine and Smaro Kamboureli (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016): 192.
3 Ted Riecken, “Mapping the Fit Between Research and Multimedia: A Podcast Exploration of the Place of Multimedia within / as Scholarship,” McGill Journal of Education 49.3 (2014): 539–41. https://doi.org/10.7202/1033545ar.
Carl Leggo, Anthony Paré, and Ted Riecken, “Peer-Reviewer Round Table Response to Ted Riecken’s Scholarly Podcast, ‘Mapping the Fit Between Research and Multimedia: A Podcast Exploration of the Place of Multimedia Within / as Scholarship.’” McGill Journal of Education 49.3 (2014): 717–29.