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
Confession time: I cried while reading these peer reviews.
I’ve cried while reading peer reviews before, but never happy tears. Never because they made me feel so entirely seen in the work I’m doing. And just like that, I’m engaging in exactly what Anna Poletti observes of my work in her review: that I use anecdote to open up a topic of discussion. I’m also thinking in the way that Carla Rice advised me: to become more attentive to both the effects and the affects (which is to say, the feelings) associated with public scholarship, its failures and successes. The remarkable thing about these thoughtful, generous reviews is how they reflect the work of Secret Feminist Agenda back to me, showing me things about the project that I haven’t or couldn’t see for myself.
Unlike our first round of peer review, which was more focused on the viability of this project—peer reviewing podcasts—and thus focused on meta-questions about how we could think of podcasts as scholarship, this round invited the reviewers to think about the scholarly contributions the podcast is actually making. I want to encourage people to read these reviews, because they so beautifully get at the heart of what I’m trying to do with this podcast. There are a number of specific ideas I want to engage with more fully, including the genres of knowledge production, my personal limitations as a scholar, the challenges associated with public scholarship, and categorizing the podcast as teaching, research, service, or, perhaps, as none of the above.
1. How do the two episode formats of Secret Feminist Agenda produce knowledge differently
Thus far I’ve been focused on the interview episodes of Secret Feminist Agenda as the beating heart of the project, and when asked what I thought was exciting about this work, I have referred to the way it makes space for dialogue as a genre within scholarship. I’m drawn to dialogue and conversation especially as a form of feminist knowledge production. I have been reading poets Sina Queyras and Canisia Lubrin in conversation and thinking about the work that conversation does, in this case in building connections across generations. Dialogue as feminist knowledge-building is a method I learned for myself while making my first podcast, Witch, Please, and it was an idea I was eager to continue developing in this project. Dr. Rice calls the interviews “pleasure-work,” which strikes me as a perfect turn of phrase.
It was interesting to me, for this reason, to see the way Dr. Poletti and Dr. Rice focused in on the minisodes as a site of a particular kind of feminist knowledge production. Indeed, Dr. Rice describes the minisodes as “where and how the podcast really shines,” and Dr. Poletti points to them as the key example of how the podcast is deploying the anecdote as a genre. The minisodes were in part born out of an attempt to maintain the weekly release of the podcast while giving myself more breathing time between interviews, and the attention that both listeners and reviewers afford them is a valuable reminder that they, too, are a vital part of the work the podcast is doing, providing me a space for both reflection on past episodes and timely engagement with current topics. Reformulating my understanding of the role that the minisodes play in the larger project of the podcast will be helpful as I complete season 3, especially thinking about how they can further work to build connective tissue between the interviews and to explicitly pull out themes and concepts that the interviews couldn’t fully address.
Both reviewers also push me to think more explicitly about the work of genre in the podcast, with Dr. Poletti in particular pointing to the feminist tradition of examining “the forms knowledge takes,” including “Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory, Lauren Berlant’s work on ‘the case’ and ‘the scene,’ Sara Ahmed’s current thinking about complaint, Donna Haraway’s theory of situated knowledges, and Audre Lorde’s suggestion that ‘poetry is not a luxury.’” At the end of her review, Dr. Poletti pushes me to think explicitly about how I’m using the anecdote: is the point “to alter scholarly knowledge by bringing it into the existing genre of the anecdote (i.e. trying to reshape knowledge so that it fits this quotidian genre)?” Or am I “reworking the anecdote to demonstrate that the genre itself can produce knowledge? And if so, what kind of knowledge does it produce?” Similarly, Dr. Rice talks about her own research on “stories as meaning-making devices, as primary ways that people make sense of/interpret the flow of their raw experiences (that are ripe for further analysis)” as well as “stories as evidence—as accounts of experience that need to be attended to for how they surface/centre elements of people’s psychic and social worlds that have been disregarded” and suggests the podcast is engaged in this work, thinking about translating feminist ideas and about legitimizing those ideas as evidence. This is absolutely how I’ve been thinking about the breadth of knowledge of my interviewees; highlighting their various forms of embodied and experiential expertise, alongside of course their technical/professional expertise, has been a primary goal of the podcast. But of course my self-reflections in minisodes are also an example of using story and anecdote to make meaning, especially when those genres let me work through the messy combinations of theory and emotion that characterize my engagements with subjects like white supremacy and ableism.
I’m excited to read further in the directions the reviewers have recommended, with the intention of bringing these conversations directly into the podcast. I’d love to do a minisode on the idea of the anecdote, for example. I’m also interested in how the minisodes could serve different purposes, including building spaces for further reflection on interview topics and continuing to address listener concerns.) As I consider changes to the format of the minisodes that may involve great investments of time, I must also balance the reality of the grueling production schedule of a weekly podcast—a practical consideration that I will expand on below.
2. Where am I bumping up against my own limitations as a scholar?
This question of personal limitations is not how either of the reviewers framed their generative critique, but it’s something that came to the forefront for me as I read their reviews. This self-reflection is in keeping with episode 2.9, “Knowing Your Limits.” Indeed, Dr. Rice graciously gestures in this direction when she acknowledges why certain interviews didn’t go as deeply into some topics as they could have: “This may have required more preparatory research or perhaps necessitated a different form (given that no one person … can know everything about every topic related to her podcast).” Similarly, Dr. Poletti points to my tendency to assume a North American context, which “might limit [the podcast’s] effectiveness in translating its argument to listeners beyond that … geographical location.” Indeed, in episode 2.30, I stated a desire for more international guests, though I haven’t yet achieved this range, an absence I can absolutely remedy in the remainder of season 3.
In general, as I seek guests whose expertise extends beyond my own, I consequently lack the knowledge that would let me delve deeper into aspects of the conversation. The publicness of the podcast is certainly a boon in this case, with listeners responding to episodes in ways that push ideas further (for example, one listener responded to episode 2.14, “Pervert Evangelism with Carly Boyce,” expressing a desire for greater nuance around the intersections of race and kink). The interesting thing here is not so much my inevitable limitations as an embodied and situated feminist scholar, but how I choose to respond to these limitations.
For this reason, I don’t think the answer is necessarily further preparation. In fact, I couldn’t have been more prepared to talk to Alicia about “how and why colonial processes have imposed heteropatriarchy onto Indigenous communities and nations and what the impacts of these processes have been on Indigenous women and gender nonconforming people and on Indigenous conceptualizations of gender relations” (that’s Dr. Rice’s summary), because I had no idea that was what we were going to talk about, and I doubt Alicia did either! The interview episodes unfold as informal conversations, with little advance discussion between me and the guest(s) about the direction they will take. The primary benefit of this approach is that it lessens the burden on guests, many of whom are not academics and thus cannot justify committing extra time to an already uncompensated activity. I’m intrigued, however, by the suggestion that the podcast could use panel discussions to expand on topics on which I have limited expertise. Dr. Rice suggests that episode 2.6 could have been expanded into “a dialogue or roundtable between Alicia Elliott and other Indigenous feminist scholars/writers/activists.” Similarly, she suggest that episodes 2.1 and 2.29, bookended discussions of public scholarship, “miss the all-important opportunity to delve into the messy dynamics surrounding criticism and accountability,” and that this could be addressed in a follow-up episode “featuring panels of feminist scholars, educators and activists [who] could have opened space to reflect on ethical processes of speaking out and listening to criticism—on how critique might engender difficult emotions such as anger and shame in panelists, on how they’ve worked through these emotions, and on how attending to difficult emotions can lead to new learning.”
I’ve been pondering the idea of panel episodes since first reading these reviews. On the one hand, the panel is a viable way to expand conversations further, opening space for multivocal reflections on complex topics and pushing beyond the dialogue into a full-blown conversation. Even as I write this, I’m thinking about the potential of even just doubling up on guests sometimes, to create different dynamics and types of conversations (as I did in episodes 1.3, 1,7, 2.2, 2.16, 2.20, and 3.8). On the other hand, they’re not viable on an ongoing basis; the organizational logic of Secret Feminist Agenda has sustainability at its heart, which is to say, I’ve designed the podcast to be something I can produce every week, and I cannot produce a panel show on a regular basis. My Press editor Siobhan McMenemy and I have already been talking about panels as a possible way to do peer review for the third season, which is one way to incorporate this format into the podcast.
In general, the question of how to respond to listener and reviewer feedback on particular episodes and their limitations continues to challenge me. When I received the aforementioned feedback about episode 2.14, I was grateful and baffled at how to incorporate it into the podcast. Responding to critique of the minisodes is much more straightforward; I can and have addressed critique in subsequent minisodes or episode introductions. But not all of my guests are scholars, and not all of them can or should be expected to respond to peer review; that is my job. This is why I like the idea of expansion over correction, of an approach to revision that brings in more voices to address topics with greater richness. Later in season 3, I’ll experiment with such an expanded conversation, quite possibly on the topic of public scholarship and accountability, which might be an ideal way to conclude the season. Inviting other scholars working on public scholarship to participate in a conversation about the challenges of this kind of work would provide a conclusion to season 3 that reflects explicitly on the aims of the podcast while putting those aims in conversation with the large field of public feminist scholarship.
3. What is at stake in doing public scholarship?
While I just suggested that an expanded conversation on this topic might be an ideal way to conclude season three, I still want to take some time to address the reviewers’ comments on public scholarship here. Dr. Poletti suggests that the podcast enacts “the ambivalence many of us feel about the costs and benefits that come with wanting the work we do to matter beyond the seemingly closed space of academia with its higher barriers to participation,” while Dr. Rice wished I had been more explicit about the links between “the emotional tolls of being trolled as a feminist public figure [and] the serious responsibility and need for accountability that comes with this role/territory.” (I do want to note that the bonus episode “Podcasting, Public Scholarship, and Accountability” addresses exactly these topics, not as a way to say the reviewers are wrong, but rather to think about season-by-season peer review and how I can keep drawing in conversations from previous seasons without simply repeating myself.)
I’m not sure why this round of peer review focused on the costs and challenges of public feminist scholarship so much more explicitly than the first round did; perhaps it’s because the podcast addresses these topics more often in the second season, or perhaps it’s simply the cultural climate of 2018, in which the costs of public feminism have been very much in evidence. It’s interesting, in any case, because it was during season two in fact when I faced the first significant public attacks as a result of this podcast. Specifically, episode 2.1, “White Feminists & Listening to Criticism” received immediate and ongoing negative response that forced Siobhan and me to develop strategies for handling this kind of response—a particular challenge because Secret Feminist Agenda episodes are released before Siobhan has an opportunity to listen or respond to them. After a prominent right-wing figure tweeted a link to the episode, we responded immediately by temporarily taking down the episode to de-escalate response. Siobhan then listened again to the episode to suggest a number of small edits. Generally I do not edit episodes in response to Siobhan’s editorial feedback, but instead use that feedback to improve future episodes. We made an exception in this case in order to mitigate the situation. I reposted the episode in its slightly altered version approximately one week later. The edited episode has continued to receive negative attention, which swelled significantly in July when it was mentioned in an editorial in a major newspaper, leading to a number of Twitter users calling for me to be fired or publicly chastised by my university. I mention this because the status of the podcast—who, if anyone, was publishing it, and thus who could be called upon to sanction me—was an explicit matter of public discussion. As we learn from the experience of Secret Feminist Agenda and move forward in our collaborative work on scholarly podcasting, we will certainly have to consider this event and what it tells us about the importance of a press engaging work prior to its broadcasting. We will also have to consider how such an approach to production would alter the timeliness of a podcast, and thus its ability to engage a wider, non-academic listenership.
There are a few lessons from this experience that I want to highlight here. First, working with a university press provides a significant benefit to feminist public intellectuals who may—perhaps inevitably—end up experiencing some form of online harassment. These benefits include the wisdom and experience of professional editors and publishers who can help academics to handle potential fallout in real time, as well as the imprimatur of an institution that lends some level of legitimacy to the work being critiqued. Second, the status of Secret Feminist Agenda episodes that have not yet been peer reviewed (as was the case with episode 2.1) presents a challenge to public response; is it inappropriate, for example, for a press to publicly defend scholarship that has not yet been peer reviewed but is being produced in collaboration with it? I don’t have clear answers to these challenges, but I think this is a topic that both Siobhan and I will need to continue thinking about as we move forward with this work.
4. Is the podcast research? Teaching? Knowledge translation? Service?
The final theme in the reviews that I want to touch on is the status of the podcast as research. In the season one reviews, Cheryl Ball and Amanda French interestingly differed in their thinking on the podcast. To quote my own summary of their questions: “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?” A similar ambivalence about the status of the podcast appears in Dr. Poletti and Dr. Rice’s reviews, and once again I find the differences of opinions productive in interrogating the way we categorize and rank the different kinds of work that happen in the academy. Dr. Poletti wonders whether the work the podcast is doing is actually public teaching. Does the podcast “bring teaching—as a praxis, an ethics, a political action dedicated to education as a form of freedom—out of the university”? Because if so, “this in itself, could be the most significant contribution the project makes to feminist scholarship.” The podcast blurs the space between teaching and research, arguing that being a researcher is also about being an ongoing student and a teacher—hence the genre of the interview, which positions me simultaneously as someone who is constantly learning and someone who can reframe specialized knowledge for a non-specialist audience. On the topic of reframing specialized knowledge, Dr. Rice links the podcast to the work of knowledge translation, uniting plain language and attention to accessibility with the work of making knowledge public. She contends that projects like Secret Feminist Agenda must be taken seriously as scholarly outputs “if we accept that translation itself represents an important contribution to knowledge”—but, in the humanities in particular, that remains a big if.
On the topic of Secret Feminist Agenda and/as teaching, I want to point out that the podcast has also had a good level of uptake in classrooms. Dr. Rice suggests that professors of gender/sexuality and social justice will find the podcast useful as a course resource, and I’ve found that to be the case. In the past year, episodes of the podcast have been taught by Lorraine York in McMaster University’s English department as part of her graduate seminar on Celebrity in the Digital Age, by Ada Jaarsma at Mount Royal in her undergraduate Feminist Philosophy class, and by Rebecca Sullivan at the University of Calgary in a Women’s Studies class tackling ethical social media activism. As I think through this set of responses, I wonder if there’s a way of thinking about Secret Feminist Agenda as a kind of open educational resource, a collaborative and open-ended audio textbook about feminism that is concerned with producing/translating rigorous scholarship as it is about making that scholarship pedagogically useful and accessible. I feel my instinctive resistance to this analogy, one that emerges surely from my knowledge that educational resources are taken so much less seriously than capital-R Research. As I consider the challenges facing those of us committed to public scholarship—expanding definitions of research, increasing the value ascribed to teaching and service, and breaking down these categories that fail to make space for publicly engaged scholarship—I’m increasingly convinced that none of these challenges can be faced in isolation. Instead, they collectively make up the work of transforming the way scholarship is practiced and valued.