Starting in the Middle (part 2)

Although the podcast The Learning Gene hasn’t yet launched, the broader project has been underway for a full year.  This past year, two groups of students have worked on the project in the context of a Feminist Philosophy class (in fall 2016) and a Philosophy of Science class (in winter 2017).  You can peruse the full slate of assignments, readings and lesson plans of Feminist Philosophy and Philosophy of Science, if you’d like to learn more about the background of the project.  And you can listen to the students’ audio projects here.

I decided to share my own first-ever audio essay as a pre-episode to The Learning Gene—in advance of the podcast’s launch.  It’s posted here on this site in the spirit of “starting in the middle.”  It’s actually a key backdrop to the podcast because it contains the project’s tagline:  listening to things we don’t know how to listen for.  This is something that Erin Manning expressed during our skype-conversation about teaching, and it captures the essentially open-ended ethos of this project.  The audio-essay itself, however, remains somewhat of a draft (which is why it won’t be part of the official Season 1 of the podcast).

There are pedagogical reasons for sharing work that is provisional or not-entirely-polished, I think.  Bhanu Kapil, the amazingly astute poet and post-colonial thinker, explains for example that there’s no rushing the process of creative work.  A narrative becomes itself in time, she writes.  And she really means it:  writing requires duration.  It can be so painful, this experience of the duration in which writing takes place, that she created a chant to accompany her own writing process:  “I learned how to re-write my work with as much passion and joy and curiosity as I had given to the writing of it.  I even invented a chant:  Re-writing is writing.  Writing is re-writing.”

The pre-episode is still a draft in that there is more rewriting to be done.  (Or, since it’s an audio essay, there’s better audio to be recorded, more graceful sound design to be produced).

But it seems useful to hit “pause” in the duration of writing, sometimes, in order to render the process itself a bit more transparent.

I am convinced that there’s tremendous value to incorporating audio into teaching because the writing process for audio is, almost by definition, collaborative.  Returning to Bhanu Kapil’s chant, writing is re-writing.  But how do we know what re-writing to do?  What to delete?  What to expand upon?

The best, and easily most effective, way to discover answers to these questions is by asking others for feedback.  And yet (at least in my experience) this is an exceedingly difficult method to transmit in the context of undergrad classrooms because it only starts to feel necessary when we ourselves are struggling with our own writing processes.  It seems to me like this might be one of the rich outcomes of podcast-pedagogy:  inviting students to dive into audio-creation and, through this immersive process, discovering the need for input from others.

But even if we do learn this important lesson—that writing is rewriting, and that rewriting is best achieved by way of others’ feedback—how do we know which critical feedback to incorporate into our rewriting?

After all, it’s likely that our interlocutors won’t agree with each other about what re-writing needs to take place. When I shared my pre-episode draft with friends, students and colleagues, for example, I was startled by the sheer differences in opinion that I received.  Some friends deemed it pretty unlistenable.  (One consoled me by offering that perhaps he simply didn’t like philosophy podcasts).  I found this response fascinating:  was there something exclusionary happening in how I strung the ideas of the pre-episode together?  In contrast to this reaction, two other friends deemed it “perfect and ready for the world,” a supportive (if optimistic) assessment of the draft.

My audio-mentor Alex Kim (who I met via his Theoretically Speaking podcast, a project which is a great example of conceptually lively audio-writing) had this critique of the pre-episode:  “A lot of the clips you chose are confusing to me right now because I think they need a lot of context to make sense to the listener.  There’s a lot of approaches that are going to help you solve this problem.”

Here are Alex’s suggestions for how to re-write the draft so that it might become more accessible for listeners:  “First, ask the right questions in the interview.  Ask for stories and anecdotes, which tend to require less theoretical background and can be used to explain concepts through narrative.  Ask:  What do you mean by that?  Why do you say that?

“Second, provide more context with your narration so that the clip will work.  You have to assume that the listener will come to your piece with no prior knowledge of these ideas and concepts.  It’s your job to give them tools to understand what your guests are saying.”

These are amazingly useful comments.  They’re also fairly journalism-specific, and so, if I were to take them up, it would shift the project more in the direction of journalism.  I’m committed to creating accessible episodes, of course, but ones that fit more within a genre of “undergraduate philosophy & science studies” than within the genre of journalism.  (In a philosophy classroom, we might make use of anecdotes in order to bring life to a concept, as Alex suggested, but we’re more likely to explore a concept in light of other concepts.  I’m not sure, in other words, if an interview conducted by a journalist should resemble an interview conducted by a philosopher).

Is it possible to forge audio-explorations of concepts and problems that don’t follow the model of “here’s a problem and here’s a solution” that journalism tends to adhere to?  And, along similar lines, is there a way to incorporate voices (like those of Erin Manning and Pat Pardo in the pre-episode) without requiring them to perform a certain “authoritative expertise” (an expertise that journalism almost always presupposes)?   This project is interested in conversations about knowledge and learning that call “authoritative expertise” into question, rather than safeguarding it.

Here are two final examples of feedback that I received.  A friend who teaches literature commented that the episode sounded like “the curious mind at work.”  This phrase captures something about the project that I hadn’t quite realized until I read her feedback:  The Learning Gene is a project about the process of learning to learn.  Which means that it is sharing the process of “the curious mind at work” (and at play).

And, finally, Syd Peacock, one of our producers, described the pre-episode draft in this way: “I think it is a really striking piece of audio that is bound to come into its own.”  It’s this latter phrase that seems especially apt for this project’s overall ambitions.  The Learning Gene is in part about emergence:  the emergence of new questions, insights and even capacities for learning.  It makes sense that the pre-episode would be, at least ideally, something that will solicit its own sound.  Stay tuned for the launch of the first episode, where you’ll hear the emerging sound of the project!