A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.
A guest post by Siobhan McMenemy, senior editor, Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Hannah McGregor (a professor in Simon Fraser University’s publishing program) and I began our collaborative research work in 2017. We had known each other, as scholars and press editors do, through campus visits and conference conversations, and on one such crossing of paths, we had happened upon a shared professional interest: the idea of a scholarly podcast. Though neither knew what this idea really meant, we both wanted to pursue it, and after assuring Hannah that I was serious about broadening my understanding of the form and challenging some of the conventions of my profession, we applied for funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to support our work and began to plan our next steps in earnest.
The pilot scholarly podcast project was designed to explore the potential of audio forms of scholarship—principally the scholarly podcast—and the ways in which a university press might support the development, editing, peer review, production, and publication of this born-digital format.
Hannah and I had a timeline that would begin at the usual beginning, with Hannah crafting a proposal for a short-run scholarly podcast series and me responding to same as editors do. When her pitch arrived, I called her to discuss it. Not long before that call, Hannah, a seasoned podcaster, had launched her second podcast series, Secret Feminist Agenda. Hannah was having fun with it and I could tell. Just as I could tell from her proposal that her heart wasn’t quite as committed to the series she was pitching me for our scholarly podcast pilot. From a practical perspective, I couldn’t imagine Hannah undertaking yet another podcast, and frankly, I didn’t see the need. In my view, she was already producing a scholarly podcast in Secret Feminist Agenda. She wasn’t so convinced.
After serious discussion and convincing (as is our wont), we agreed that the significant potential of our collaboration lay in the combination of our respective areas of professional expertise, a willingness on both sides to push ourselves beyond the professionally comfortable, and a good, strong sense of humour. Though I (mostly) understood that we’d be introducing an additional challenge to my work by having me throw myself into hers in medias res, Secret Feminist Agenda was a podcast that brought Hannah joy, and every editor worth her salt knows how important it is to encourage researchers and scholars to pursue those projects that give them the greatest satisfaction. We came to see the considerable advantages of using Secret Feminist Agenda as our pilot because we each knew that the podcast would encourage us to relax our grips on certain academic conventions and to embrace the potential that a lively and irreverent feminist podcast would bring to our collaboration.
...to demonstrate as publicly as possible the potential of alternative modes of scholarly production that have struggled to achieve the legitimacy enjoyed by books and articles by engaging in a rigorous, iterative, open peer review...
Our particular goal in this pilot scholarly podcast was to demonstrate as publicly as possible the potential of alternative modes of scholarly production that have struggled to achieve the legitimacy enjoyed by books and articles by engaging in a rigorous, iterative, open peer review and to allow Hannah and me to illustrate the potential to create, edit, review, publish, and promote scholarship in this audio format. More particularly still, Hannah wanted to experiment with a conversational interview format as a means of scholarly production in itself, while I wanted to use that same experiment to explore transparent and unconventional forms of peer review.
Originally I had imagined that, with several rounds of experimenting with peer review, I might then confidently craft a series of readily used, widely applicable standard questions for peer reviewing scholarly podcasts. I’m closer to understanding the form and the unique needs of scholarly podcasters now than I was three years ago, and I know that our work on this process has been adopted and adapted elsewhere [including by the author of last week's post --ed.], but there remains more work for me to do to feel as though I’ve enough experience to offer a set of best practices. What has been achieved to date has been a widening of the conversation among scholarly publishers and a welcome attention to this work-in-progress from university administrators, librarians, and researchers.
Of...concern to the reviewers was whether a publisher’s peer review could add anything of value to the podcast, and even more broadly, whether university presses would be willing to embrace such work on a long-term basis, given the need for significant investment and changes to conventions and business models in order to do so.
Hannah and I have been asked in various ways what place podcasts have in scholarship. A good number of the questions posed by the reviewers of Secret Feminist Agenda asked for reflection on this same matter of purpose and contribution. As became evident from the reviewers’ engagement over three podcast seasons, such questions are boring to anyone who has already embraced born-digital scholarly production and who has engaged students with teaching methods and educational materials that embrace digital platforms. (The pilot podcast project pre-dated COVID-19, and our mid-pandemic working world has now encouraged thousands of universities and their faculty and students to embrace an even higher degree of unconventional engagement with digital scholarship and learning methods. I imagine some of these questions will sound quaint to the ears of many more people after the end of the upcoming academic year.) Of greater concern to the reviewers was whether a publisher’s peer review could add anything of value to the podcast, and even more broadly, whether university presses would be willing to embrace such work on a long-term basis, given the need for significant investment and changes to conventions and business models in order to do so.
Success in the peer review of the pilot, however, doesn’t mean we haven’t heard from sceptics. The most common misconception regarding the podcast form is that, if it’s popular, it must lack gravity, and if it sounds like there’s fun being had, it can’t be scholarly. It’s precisely the enactment of feminist scholarship in Secret Feminist Agenda that seems to bring such criticism to the fore: The unscripted, loosely structured conversations between guests that bring scholarship to bear on discussions, playful and serious, that examine personal, professional, and general interests for a broad audience.
If the barriers to broadcasting are non-existent, then the quality of the work must be minimal—for that matter, it must be easy to make a good podcast. I think it fair to say, in any case, that scholarly podcasts have as many places to exist in, and to contribute to, the world of scholarship, teaching, and learning as any other form of scholarly publication.
The commitment that Hannah and I (and our institutions) bring to this work has extended beyond our initial experiment. We have developed a plan for our current work-in-progress, which is to build ongoing institutional and community working relationships in the establishment of a scholarly podcast network called Amplify. Our vision for the network includes the creation and sharing of new tools for metadata creation and distribution; infrastructure for institutional archiving of digital audio files; and a set of conventions for editorial, production, distribution, and promotion processes at the Press for three new scholarly podcast series (now in development) and future such undertakings, as possible, under the imprint of WLU Press.
WLU Press has supported my involvement in this project as a natural extension of my editorial work and the Press’ longstanding commitment to deepen its engagement with new forms of scholarship and to make that scholarship as widely accessible as is feasible, within budgetary constraints familiar to those in the university publishing industry. WLU Press was among the first Canadian scholarly publishers to move scholarly journals online and to digitize its backlist. The Press experimented with a book app before ‘the app’ was a part of common usage. Our audiobook production is in full swing. These undertakings have always been an important part of the Press’ understanding of the need to take calculated risks, with vital support from government investment in research and publication, to ensure we meet the needs of our scholar-creators and our audiences.
[T]he way forward for lively, creative scholarship is through a collaboration of those with vested interests in the communities that create and disseminate it.
We agree that the way forward for lively, creative scholarship is through a collaboration of those with vested interests in the communities that create and disseminate it. Universities and research centres, university presses, research funding agencies, libraries—we are integral component parts of a collective mandate to enrich our understanding of the world.
For over twenty years, Siobhan McMenemy (Senior Editor, WLU Press) has built book lists and edited scholarship in the social sciences and humanities. She publishes cross- and interdisciplinary research, hybrid genres, and collaborative, born-digital scholarship, of which her work on scholarly podcasting is a part. She is committed to publishing scholarship by and about members of communities who have been pushed to the margins for too long.
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