Critical Podcasting

(co-written by Ada Jaarsma & Anna Mudde)

We are each philosophy professors, and we’re both increasingly drawn to audio as a medium for critical inquiry, especially in relation to teaching and learning.  The world of podcasts is growing all the time, and there are many podcasts that lend themselves directly—as open access educational resources—to the classroom.  (See our curated list of “especially teachable” episodes here).  Audio, in the form of recorded and edited conversations, adds invaluable dimensions to the exchange of ideas: the tone of a person’s voice, as they express a story or assert a claim, makes the somatic and affective aspects of arguments more apparent.  (“What happens when scholarly communication gets intimate?” is a question that arises in the context of academic podcasting (Altman 2015, 573)). As well, when a podcast is distributed in an accessible format, we are able to read the transcript or listen to an episode, enabling a greater range of communication-styles.  And, significantly for higher education contexts in particular, podcasts tend to be free to download and exchange, and so the wide range of podcasts expands the possibilities of curricular content that students can access without accumulating higher educational costs.

But we’ve been wondering something:  what’s the rationale for our assumption that audio is an apt medium for critical, collaborative thinking?  And, if we grant this assumption, what would be a helpful basis for choosing which podcasts to incorporate into our classes, podcasts that exemplify what we’re calling “critical podcasting”?  

The word “critical” here might refer to a wide-range of qualities, but most generally, we mean resources that solicit the kind of media literacy, reflective analysis and open-ended inquiry into identity, power and representation described here.  Our concerns are different from those that investigate the “quality and reliability” of educational podcasts (for an example of such analyses, see Thoma et al 2015).  Instead of delimiting the quality or reliability of podcasts, we share these anthropologists’ interest in imagining “what a research podcast might sound like” (Durrani, Gotkin & Laughlin 2015, 3), a question that invites open-ended reflection on the medium itself.  In turn, we’re interested what we might learn about the undergraduate classroom as a space for engaging critically with knowledge and knowledge-practices when we find ways to integrate audio into our courses.

And so we’ve developed a rationale for ascertaining whether a podcast should be described as “critical.”  It’s a guide for adjudicating whether a particular episode is indeed “teachable” as a critical resource.  It’s also a guide for creating our own audio essays: a set of regulative ideals, we could say, for us to keep in mind as we grapple with the challenges of sound and sound design.

One last point about this post: we include examples in what follows, not to compile a comprehensive list of critical podcasts but rather to open up questions about pedagogy, critique and podcasting.  We list episodes that, on our assessment, demonstrate the critical qualities that we’re laying out.  But, since this post is about exploring the nature of “critical podcasting,” we also include examples that we remain somewhat unsure about, either because they express critical ideals somewhat partially or because the degree to which they enact critical thinking depends upon the interpretative contributions of listeners.  (Some listeners might affirm them as critical, while others might want to launch critical responses to them).  Some of these episodes might seem apt for affirmation as critical at one level of study, but open for critical response at another.

We welcome suggestions in the “comments” of episodes that you recommend as examples of “critical podcasting.” And we’re really interested in hearing whether there are other qualities that you would want to “hear” in an audio essay in order to be able to affirm it as critical.

Ideal # 1:    A critical relationship to Norms

Our public spheres are saturated with voices that reflect and police what gets to count as “normal.”  These voices exclude all those whose bodies, identities or commitments do not align with the dictates of whiteness, able-bodied/-mindedness and other marginalized and heterogeneous expressions of social life.  And these voices also lay claim to a kind of authority that’s really hard to displace or question because they pass as impartial or neutral, unmarked and therefore representative of the “universal” person.  (As Michael Warner puts it, in these kinds of normative spheres, a person’s self-interest has a negative relation to the potential validity of their arguments (2002, 40)).  And so the stakes are tremendously high here: whose ideas get to resound as more convincing or more weighty, and whose self-interested claims get to pass as impartial?  And since there are feedback loops to public spheres, whose self-interested claims actually reinforce the boundaries around who is excluded and who is included?

Critical podcasting disrupts the power of the so-called universal.  Critical podcasts invoke other kinds of norms, ones that open up the “normal” to a wide range of voices, bodies and communities.  And they model other relationships to norms, relationships that often foreground the import of ecology and solidarity.  The status of “expert knowledge” is destabilized by critical podcasting because the very production of “expertise” becomes recognizable as an utterly partial, not-at-all-inevitable enterprise. This breaks the feedback loops in which experts reinforce the unmarked (white, able-bodied/-minded, cis-gendered, hetero) qualities of expertise.  In turn, critical podcasting draws our attention to knowledge-practices that invite resistance to universalizing norms.  We encounter artists, academics and other knowledge-seekers who share their insights in ways that affirm new, dissonant forms of knowledge.

This ideal might be attained through a variety of sound design choices:

 

  • Including many different kinds of voices;
  • Foregrounding voices that are marginalized;
  • Sharing archival and current knowledge that is not readily available publicly;
  • Narrating or framing in ways that question established norms

Examples:

Code Switch, Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy?” is an episode that pairs the conventional stories by scientists about genomic identity with the wonderfully critical analysis by Kim TallBear.  This is an exemplary case in which knowledge is re-framed in light of critical race, indigenous and science-studies insights.  Students might identify initially with the pop-science promises expressed by 23 and Me researchers, but, as they keep listening, they’ll encounter the robust challenges by TallBear to rethink the very meaning of heredity, race and scientific data itself.

The Story Collider as a whole features a range of diverse contributors and storytellers, and episodes often challenge assumptions about the “non-subjectivity” and the absence of values or feelings from scientific work.  The stories featured in The Story Collider also call out norms surrounding knowledge, knowledge-practices and the uptake of science within public policy.  Two episodes that seem especially apt here are “Resistance: Stories about Fighting Oppression” and “Habitat Loss: Stories of Changing Environments.”

 

  • Representing a range of demographics, identity-groups and institutions, pragmatically & strategically
  • Prompting skeptical questions about the very production of knowledge

Examples:

The Unmute Podcast calls out and cuts against the lack of diversity in the discipline of philosophy, and it invites listeners to relate to experts as persons with stories, experiences, desires and interest. Along similar lines, the hosts of The Get find inventive ways to situate university-life in relation to race, identity and the partiality of interests.  And, a third example, On the Media’s series on the myths of poverty and social mobility uses audio as a resource for interrogating “the tales we tell ourselves about poverty.”

 

  • Staging the significance of local ecologies, local discourse and local political action

Examples:

Podcasting communities like Indian and Cowboy seem exemplary here: independent, member-supported and committed to producing politically and existentially transformative audio work.

 

An example we wonder about:

The Heart’s recent mini-series on consent:    On the one hand, this mini-series is cast quite explicitly as an exploration of norms (the episodes trouble the all-too-common norms of sexual violence, gendered normativity and the question what counts as legitimate consent).  Moreover, the series uses audio in order to explore sexuality and the rich weirdness of desire in ways that are feminist and sex-positive.  On the other hand, the narrator and her various lovers, friends and ex-lovers express normative identities to such an extent that the “norms” being explored become represented as if they are truly universal.  This does get complicated by the show’s producers in the fourth and final episode.  But we wonder if there’s a riskiness to this kind of portrayal of problematic norms that outweighs its critical qualities as an audio project.  (Put differently, examples like this mini-series are best incorporated in courses as optional for students, and not required listening.  Audio is a medium whose affective qualities, we think, really raise the stakes for what we as educators choose to include as curriculum in our courses.  Much better to err on the side of caution when it comes to material that might incite or trigger responses by students that we can’t responsibly help navigate).

 

 Ideal # 2:   A critical relationship to Sound

Critical podcasting is deeply resonant with the insight from disability studies and critical race theory that “sound” is often a normalizing and exclusionary force (see Friedner & Helmreich 2012; Stoever 2016).  Audio is no neutral medium, in other words, because it runs the risk of reinforcing the violence of sonic norms.

This second ideal—what we’re describing as a critical relation to sound itself—is at play when an audio essay or a podcast opens up for reflection and critique the ways in which we relate to phenomena like so-called accents, dysfluent speech and other diverse forms of expression, or to the sonic colour line.  In terms of the pedagogical value of podcasting, we’re struck by the medium’s openness to the recognition of craft and “editorial decisions” about script and sound design: as folks trained to read texts rather than to listen to audio, for example, we find sound to have a somewhat constitutively pedagogical force.  This is what Jonathan Sterne might mean, in his introduction to The Sound Studies Reader, when he points out that people who work in sound studies are, essentially, sound students (2012, 3).  Critical podcasting invites listeners to become sound students.  This might mean opening up pressing issues related to accessibility in digital environments.  It might mean inviting listeners to adopt skeptical attitudes towards a given audio essay (In this episode of The World in Words, for example, Patrick Cox calls out his own assessment of certain intonations as “accented” speech).  It might also mean interviews with those who model critical relations to sound, as in the case of this recent episode of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything: Benjamen interviews an artist whose own radical listening practices are at odds with the surveillance of the police state.

 

Such examples invite us to ask: can podcasts solicit “radical listening practices” along similar lines?

 

Examples that exemplify this ideal:

An episode of The Allusionist highlights the cultural and linguistic hegemony of western consumers that is often at play with the usage of “Namaste.”  StutterTalk uses the very medium of speech, bringing narrative together with storytelling and interviews, in order to change “how you think about stuttering—one podcast at a time.”

And, as an example that calls out problems within the professional world of audio-creation, Stephanie Foo is a producer for This American Life, and her manifesto, “What to do if your Workplace is too White,” points out the real limitations within the world of podcasting/radio when it comes to diversity.  Foo’s manifesto is a call for critical approaches to audio, and in this episode of the podcast HowSound, Foo tells the story of her own journey into audio-making (the episode includes a particularly fantastic piece by Foo herself).

 

An example we wonder about:

Reply All is a more mainstream and yet vibrant audio project that often solicits attention directly to questions of media and literacy.  It might be a case of a podcast that stages a range of sonically-focused analysis that we, as listeners, might assess critically.  Put otherwise, it’s not the case that this podcast frames its own work as “critical” (at odds with the work of consumer culture, for example, which is an ideal of critical podcasting we talk about next).

 

Ideal # 3:   A critical relationship to Value

Critical podcasting is resistant to the commodification of meaning, ideas and value itself.  One of us, Ada, tells a story about an exchange she had about the book she was then drafting: the person with whom she was talking listened carefully to Ada’s description of her project, and then asked, “But how are you going to monetize that?”  That question is at the heart of the prevailing system of value in neo-liberal capitalism: something (a book, a podcast, an idea) has value only if and when it can be monetized.  And, in turn, an artist, a writer, a philosopher has value when they can monetize themselves, becoming a species of person that theorists call homo oeconomicus.  Critical podcasts, in contrast, experiment with the possibility of forging other kinds of value.  And they promote other logics of valuation.

In the context of critical podcasting, content is essentially valuable.  This is a qualitative difference from commodified approaches to audio.  In his description of fully monetized media in which circulation or clicks or downloads are the only measure of value, Ed Finn explains, “The process monetizes eyeballs and human attention, not ideas” (2017, 172).  Critical podcasting counters the monetizing of “attention” by affirming the value of ideas.

As a form of critique, this ideal might well raise the question anew: “how critical can podcasting be?”  Perhaps this ideal leads to podcasts that query the very project of a podcast, opening up the question of audio as a valuable medium.  Especially when podcasts prompt us to re-evaluate our own judgements about value, this is when the very nature of aesthetics opens up for us as listeners.  (Do we tend to listen to voices just like our own?  Can we be compelled into other aesthetic directions?)

This ideal exemplifies the openness of knowledge-exchange.  Rather than a closed circuit between experts and for-profit publishing, critical podcasting is committed to the inclusivity of open access resources.  This means that there might be friction between a critical podcast and an overly neo-liberal university space, since critical podcasting is committed to opening up “value” beyond the metrics of neo-liberal institutions.

We’re fascinated by the other kinds of values that open up, beyond the instrumentalizing logics of capitalism:  values like that of curiosity and solidarity-building.

 

Examples: 

There is a burgeoning number of wonderful podcasts that explicitly foreground critical knowledge seekers:  KPFA’s Against the Grain, for example, or The Critical Lede podcast or Always-Already critical theory podcast.  There are podcasts with funding models that undermine the imperatives of monetizing all creation, like the beautifully produced Home of the Brave.  And there are podcasts that explore the value of art in ways that solicit creative and critical relations to aesthetics, like One from the Vault, a trans history podcast produced by Morgan M. Page.  (As this article declares, “pop historical projects like One From The Vaults are fucking necessary.”)

 

 

References

Altman, Michael J. 2015. “Podcasting Religious Studies,” Religion 45(4): 573-584.

Finn, Ed. 2017. What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. MIT Press.

Durrani, Mariam, Kevin Gotkin & Corrina Laughlin, 2015. “Serial, Seriality and the Possibilities for the Podcast Format,” American Anthropologist 117(3): 1-4.

Friedner, Michele & Stefan Helmreich. 2012. “Sound Studies meets Deaf Studies,” Senses & Society 7(1): 72-86.

Sterne, Jonathan.  2012.  “Sonic Imaginations,” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. Routledge, 1-17.

Stoever, Jennifer Lynn. 2016. The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening. New York University Press.

Thoma, Brent et al. 2015. “Emergency Medicine and Critical Care Blogs and Podcasts: Establishing an International Consensus on Quality,” Annals of Emergency Medicine 66(4): 396-402.

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