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Review by Amanda L. French

Amanda L. French, PhD

Amanda L. French, PhD

Scholarly communication and digital humanities research, teaching, grant writing, and project management


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?

Yes, I agree with the contention that the podcast can be a new mode of scholarly communication. This particular podcast series has a format that’s perhaps more common in podcasting than in scholarship: the interview, or perhaps more accurately, the conversation. But that format isn’t unknown in scholarship, either, though of course it’s more common in journalism and infotainment. This series does the conversational interview well, I think, and it’s a good way to introduce a scholarly audience to new scholars. The choice of this podcast to have new guests on every episode is a good one, I think, and better for this purpose than another common podcast format, which is to have a conversation with a set of regulars and only occasional guests. I admit I do like podcast interviews that have a bit more structure than this one seems to in its first season, such as defined segments or a question that is asked of every guest: I’d like to see a bit more of that structure framing the nice wide-ranging conversations. The podcast does begin with personal reflection before the conversation (“my secret feminist agenda”), à la Marc Maron, which I like both for structure and for content, and later episodes do add “Kaarina’s Kozy Self- Kare Korner,” which I like.

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?

I’ve listened to episodes 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.8, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, and 1.15.

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?

The length of the episodes is generally appropriate, although it does fluctuate more than many other podcasts. It might be nice to keep each episode at around the same length, probably 50-60 minutes. As mentioned above, I’d like a little more structure to each episode, but it’s fine as it is.

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?

I hate the question. Let’s put it this way: no, it’s not scholarly, but who cares? Most people who produce a podcast (most of whom are not scholars) post such links (“show notes”) if they have any remote level of professionalism. Or, to say the same thing another way, yes, of course it’s scholarly, because it’s produced by scholars who are being careful to provide useful or necessary supplementary information.

And the very idea of linking came from scholars -- Tim Berners-Lee imagined hyperlinks as a form of scholarly citation, and Google based its PageRank algorithm on citation metrics common in scholarship. If the podcast didn’t have these links, it would be a problem, but invoking the concept of scholarly standards seems out of place. It is true that the role of such a podcast “apparatus” is the same as that of a scholarly apparatus: to give the reader / listener directions to the source material that informs the main body of the work. But, again, professionals in many non-scholarly fields hold themselves to this standard, notably journalists, lawyers, and food bloggers. And like scholarly citations, such links also serve as publicity, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The particular show notes that this podcast provides are very typical of their kind, linking readers to the work of the people interviewed and giving credit for things like the theme song, and they do exactly what they should.

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?

I feel like this question is really asking “Should this podcast count toward tenure?” And I guess my answer is “Sure, fine by me, good luck with that.” Look, something of this nature doesn’t really fit in to the usual triumvirate of “research, teaching, service,” but I think it’s that triumvirate that’s at fault. In my view people as smart and engaged as the ones on this podcast should get tenure for sneezing, but for some reason we live in a world where you have to prove yourself seventy times over before you might have a bare chance to earn a decent, stable living. I have always liked the term “scholarly communication,” because that is what is going on here – scholars communicating with each other, both those who are recorded and those who listen. I’ve often heard “research” defined as “creating new knowledge,” and no, I don’t think this podcast does that. But what is going on in this podcast is the mutual exchange of knowledge and ideas, which is deepening the understanding of all involved, podcasters and listeners. Scholars should definitely do that, whatever you call it. I wouldn’t call it research, but I like it and want to encourage it, and if I could give everyone tenure I would. The strengths of the series as an expression of “scholarly research engagement” are these: it is a more human and friendly and modern way to introduce scholars and artists and explore feminist ideas than a traditional journal article, and thus is likely to have more reach. The weaknesses are the same: it is loose and spontaneous, and it isn’t as rigorous as a traditional journal article or a book, and it doesn’t even really have the same purpose. And don’t get me wrong: traditional textual scholarship is a great thing when it’s done well, and it’s a format that allows for great care and precision in explaining and exploring ideas, which is very necessary. I’d even agree that such careful, precise texts are rightly the bedrock of academe. I just don’t believe that the ability to mass-produce scholarly prose and only scholarly prose should so disproportionately affect scholars’ ability to earn a living, since 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.

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?

The podcast has a great tagline that serves as its central argument: “Because feminists are inherently interesting.” If feminists have historically been considered humorless activists, this podcast helps debunk that stereotype. I think that’s clear. I wouldn’t say there’s a “scholarly methodology” to the podcast series, but then, it’s a podcast. Podcasts don’t have methodologies. Unless you count learning to use Audacity.

2. To what audience(s) is the podcast directed? To what discipline(s) in particular, if any?

I’d say it’s clearly directed at a scholarly audience: people who are studying gender at a postsecondary level at least. It’s fairly discipline-agnostic, I think, or rather discipline-catholic, which is a strength. Feminism itself suffuses all fields.

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?

I addressed some of this earlier – I’d like the interviews / conversations themselves to be just a bit more structured, with one or two common questions that help create a throughline between episodes, but otherwise I think it’s working fine. Most podcasts I know do also experiment with new segments and so on, so that’d be something to explore. In one or two episodes I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t an explicit concise answer to the introductory question of what Hannah’s secret feminist agenda is this week – again, I’d like to see that syntactically similar every single week: “This week, my secret feminist agenda is to practice witchcraft” or whatnot. I’d also strongly suggest that every single person be miked: I found it very annoying to hear Hannah’s sounds of agreement / encouragement half-muted while the guest was speaking (I think that was mainly episode 1.8?). I’d rather hear them not at all, muted, or fully miked.

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?

The episode I thought was weakest was episode 1.3 with Rebecca Caines and Michelle Stewart – not even sure why, but I just zoned out. Not as interesting a conversation, I suppose. Some academic part of me wants to disapprove of the lengthy discussion of astrology on episode 1.8, but actually, I really enjoyed it, and, you know, that’s okay for poets, right? And anyway, I myself have a secret love for personality schemas like the Enneagram, and I appreciated the point that these things provide a “language of empathy,” as I think it was phrased, even though we know perfectly well that these systems have no empirical truth. I also really, really enjoyed episodes 1.11 and 1.12 with Cynara Geissler for the way they spoke to a lot of my own issues with work. Episode 1.13 seemed unfinished, somehow – I kept expecting there to be a bit more about James Damore, the Google guy, because it was in the title, but it was just an afterthought. And in that episode as in others, I guess I’d have liked to hear a bit more about the interviewee’s actual area of expertise, though I do enjoy the broad range of the conversations.

C. General

1. Does the podcast series, as it stands, make a significant contribution to its field(s)?

You bet.

2. What are the competing and comparable podcasts in the field(s), and how does this one relate to them?

I do know of some scholarly podcasts, but no others that are explicitly feminist. The podcast I’m most familiar with is the one I co-hosted for many years, “Digital Campus,” which had a different format – more “a group of regulars discusses the tech news that affects universities, with occasional guests.” I’m pretty sure they brought me on mainly to get a woman in the mix of all men, but I was great at it. (I miss it.) There’s also a tremendously successful podcast and radio show called “The History Guys” with Ed Ayers and others that does public history for a truly popular audience. I’ve also listened to some episodes of “Call Your Girlfriend,” a podcast that has a much more popular bent than “Secret Feminist Agenda” but which has very educated and explicitly feminist hosts. SFA is I think the only podcast I’ve ever heard that has scholars talking to one another about scholarship, even though it’s a loose and informal conversation. David Weinberger used to have a great “LibraryLab” podcast where he interviewed prominent people in library and information science, come to think of it, which resembled SFA in some ways.

3. What are the competing and comparable books in the field(s), and how does the podcast relate to them?

Books? What is this, 1995? That’s the year I earned my own M.A. with a certificate in Women’s Studies, and I’ve read only popular feminism since then, and scantily in that, so I’m the wrong person to ask. In fact I enjoyed the podcast precisely because it gave me a peek at what new scholars are thinking and talking about. But I do think it’s less accessible than something like Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, less aimed squarely at a public audience.

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?

None of these. For one thing, the serial form of the podcast makes it substantially different from those examples. If anything, maybe running this podcast series is comparable to founding and editing a scholarly journal or a founding and running a scholarly speaker series or conference or institute. The purpose of all those activities is roughly the same: to give other scholars a forum to talk to one another and a platform to disseminate their ideas. In which case I suppose it gets counted as “service to the profession,” which should count for a great deal more than it does in tenure and promotion considerations. Though in my experience such service does lead to things like speaking invitations that are more highly valued in tenure and promotion.

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:

(i) 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 five episodes is about right – reading a monograph would take about as long. The answer is more about the time it takes to fully answer these questions.

(ii) 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?

Sure – if anything, too thorough. It still seems odd to me to peer review a podcast.

(iii) 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?

Zero rounds of peer review. I actually think iTunes ratings and reviews and so on can serve the same purpose, though of course there are two problems with that: 1) you can’t ensure that the reviewers are peers, and 2) reviews are just an open-ended text box. But since the primary audience for this is scholarly, anyone who does such a review is likely to be nearly a peer, and I think that the single text box format, while it doesn’t provide feedback as detailed, does at least have the advantage of ensuring that reviewers give their most important thoughts and that the podcaster isn’t overwhelmed with information.

(iv) 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 don’t think either open or blind peer review adds value to the podcast series, but I’m willing to be proved wrong.