For academics, just like for everyone else, social media is now woven into our lives in myriad ways. As a communication studies scholar, I’m all too aware of the long catalogue of challenges, problems and consequences of our new digital lives. But I’ve also decided to experiment with how we might use some of the particular features of our connected world to reach new audiences and make our research matter. That’s why I started a podcast called Now We’re Talking. Along the way I’ve learned about the affordances, challenges and possibilities of using this medium to talk about my own work. Unlike Twitter’s short, snappy declarations or Facebook ruminations and self-disclosures about life in academia, podcasting felt like a space where the classroom and my research could intersect with the larger, broader world.
As chair of the department of communication arts at the University of Waterloo and director of Arts First (a first-year communication program), I have the great fortune of teaching and working with many outstanding students. My goal in my classes is to help students improve in all forms of communication. This means I want them to be better writers, better speakers, better small-group teammates, better leaders and better partners in their interpersonal relationships.
At the same time, my scholarship has always addressed questions about how we can use communication to live well with others who have different views and opinions about the world. If we were all better able to collaborate, coordinate and cooperate with others through effective communication, then our democratic culture might thrive. So, in 2017, eight students approached me about doing a special year-long seminar that would cover everything they could ever learn about all forms of communication so that they might each become master communicators able to effectively navigate and transform their worlds. That yearlong seminar led to Now We’re Talking. Several of those students recorded episodes with me, and each of them, in their own ways, inspired different episodes and helped me to keep the project going after they graduated.
The central challenge
Podcasting for me is a way to continue the conversation with my students, a way to bring my research to pressing, complex problems, and a way to reach unexpected audiences of people that may never sit in a communication studies classroom. The central challenge is the absence of a syllabus or a context, and the lack of a broader, deeper set of sources that typically inform classroom conversation or published academic scholarship. In the place of those things, each episode requires that I get immediately to some critical insight or practical application of research in ways that connect with the everyday concerns of anyone listening. This is a challenge that many academics never face.
As a graduate student, I worked with a professor who made us explain our dissertation research to audiences with different levels of expertise (tenured professors, undergraduate students and our grandmothers). My podcast is an expanded and extended version of that exercise. My two sons, 11 and 13, remain my toughest critics and the litmus test for a good episode. If they understand, then I know I’ve done my job.
The intellectual challenge of using my research and teaching skills to make content that is comprehensible and useful to a range of audiences far exceeds the simplicity of digital production. This means that I’m able to explore a variety of themes and ideas, unconstrained by the limitations of a syllabus or the conventions of a journal article. Topics range from the basics (“What is communication? And how do I get better at it?”), to public rhetoric (“How to win an election”), to social psychology (“How some communication practices can ruin our relationships”). Or there’s this timely one: “Why and how to stop invalidating others.” In total, I’ve made 75 episodes so far and have over 18,000 plays. The average length of each podcast is about 22 minutes.
I think many of us underestimate the ways that the conventions and structures within which we are expected to work can limit our creativity and constrain our critical insight. It’s not that podcasting is a completely free and unconstrained space, but it does offer a vastly different set of conventions and structures. These differences can open up important possibilities for academics. I didn’t realize that when I set out to make these episodes, but now I’m certain that I’ve learned, grown and developed my own thinking in important ways that would not have been possible otherwise.
The biggest challenge is developing an audience. I confess this is still a work in progress for me. I don’t love the idea of holding out a placard in the public square and soliciting attention, but I do trust that my training, expertise and experience have given me valuable and important insights that others may benefit from. I hope many more academics see themselves like that and are willing to take up the challenges of building an audience. We spend a lot of time promising to connect the university to the broader community (in mission statements, grant applications and our service roles). In a social-media world, where everyone has a smart phone and a pair of earbuds, podcasting is one sure way of doing that important work.
Robert Danisch is an associate professor and chair of the department of communication arts, and director of the Arts First program, at the University of Waterloo.