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Listen up: CBC Radio explores the work of PhDs

BY GAIL DUGAS | FEB 24 2016
Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell, co-producers of CBC Radio's Ideas from the Trenches series. Photo: Sean Laughlin
Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell, co-producers of CBC Radio’s Ideas from the Trenches series. Photo: Sean Laughlin

“I have always loved the idea of immersing myself in a dissertation. I envied people who were doing their PhDs. I would think ‘Take me with you!” says Tom Howell, co-creator of a radio project inspired by the work of Canadian PhD students.

Introducing their audience to students who have spent years thinking about a particular topic is the mission of CBC Radio’s Ideas from the Trenches series. It takes themes from written dissertations and turns them into full-length radio documentaries.

“We ask the students which experts and scholars in their field they would like to be on the program,” says co-producer Nicola Luksic. “It turns out that sometimes the most famous scholars have been the most giving and enthusiastic. It is inspiring to the students and stimulating for the audience.”

But this isn’t an old-style, talking-heads format. The producers weave interviews, sounds, music and mental imagery into lively 54-minute episodes broadcast on CBC Radio and available on podcasts.  Nine episodes have aired so far, the most recent on January 28.

The work of PhDs is a good fit for CBC Ideas, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of delivering the best in contemporary thought. They cover social issues, culture and the arts, geopolitics, history, biography, science and technology, and the humanities.

The producers aim to produce five Trenches episodes a year. They aren’t necessarily looking for earth-changing research but rather thoughtful and different perspectives. “We have fun, engaging conversations with interesting people who have thought deeply about their research,” says Ms. Luksic.

It was an eye-opening experience for Kristin Rodier, a recent PhD graduate in philosophy at the University of Alberta. A self-described extrovert, she literally had “thousands of conversations” as she developed her thesis. But most of her talking was at conferences and with fellow academics.

“it is it is nice to know that your abstract philosophy dissertation is interesting to others. It was good for me to have that,” she says. And over the months that the project took shape, she was fascinated to see – or hear – what material the production team chose to reach a general audience.

She titled her thesis Habits of Resistance: Feminism, Phenomenology, and Temporality. Unpacking that language, the CBC encapsulated it this way: “Habits are normally understood as either virtue or vice. This philosopher looks at what happens when those habits are disrupted with an eye to social change.”

Dr. Rodier said she was surprised at the reaction to the final product, which originally aired on Aug. 21, 2015. “My department had a listening party, which was great,” she says. “But I also heard from people I never thought would be interested. It heightened my profile.” The Trenches team says audience reaction to the pieces has been overwhelmingly positive. “When the whole ‘Canada is hip’ thing was going on, we had American listeners writing in to say that Canada is hip because it actually has a show about PhDs,” says Ms. Luksic.

As a broadcaster, Ms. Luksic has seen the project help PhD students develop stronger communications skills and appreciate the cross-pollination benefits of working with a team. “One of our participants had a Eureka moment while he was going through the taped interviews we had done with experts,” she says. “It solidified his conclusion.” Her co-creator Mr. Howell says he is struck by how self-deprecating many of the students are about their work. But when the process is over, he has observed an ability to be “way more on point and understanding why their work is important.”

Dr. Rodier concurs. “It is a great exercise for grad students the same way the Three-Minute Thesis is,” she says. “In my field [of philosophy] we have the old-school way of sharing – things like conferences that very few people come to. But there is a thirst to make it acceptable. Where I live in Edmonton, professors personally fund popular events to get philosophy out into the community. As a liberal arts advocate I think there should be more of this kind of thing.”

Ms. Luksic and Mr. Howell’s commitment to good storytelling and fascinating ideas will be put to use at the national Three-Minute Thesis competition this spring, where they’ll be part of the judges’ panel.

Think you have what it takes to share your ideas with Canadian radio and podcast listeners? You can reach the program producers here.

This is an edited version of the story first published on the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies website.

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  1. Alison / February 24, 2016 at 13:24

    Amazing, creative meeting of theoreticians and practitioners… And ‘they’ said it couldn’t be done… Thank you CBC Radio for such a thoughtful, provocative, and forward-thinking opportunity for Canadians

  2. Christopher James Duncanson-Hales / March 1, 2016 at 16:37

    What I find sad about this series is, the increasing probability that much of the research being showcased will either stagnate after graduation or be altogether lost as Phd’s end up without jobs or part of the precariat.