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News about the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab

Reimagining the sound of scholarship: Interview with Hannah McGregor Part 2

Published by Alison Moore

This blog post was contributed by Sophia Han, a former Digital Fellow in the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab. 

This interview is the second of a series with Hannah McGregor, co-director of the Amplify Podcast Network. We continue the conversation around scholarly podcasting and what it means to preserve and share scholarly work using digital tools.

So how have other academics responded to this idea that scholarly publishing can involve an editorial process different from the norm?
It’s been really important for both Siobhan and me to establish from the get-go that we’re not trying to claim that podcasting should replace all other forms of scholarly publishing, or that it will be for everyone. The idea is to add to the existing ecosystem of scholarly communication. 

There are a lot of different approaches to scholarly podcasting. My way of doing things is about being in dialogue with listeners. There are also people making highly-produced audio documentaries which are just as finely crafted as an article in an academic journal.

How will Amplify incorporate peer reviews?
Unlike with Secret Feminist Agenda, which was peer-reviewed after a season was completed, the new Amplify podcasts will be peer reviewed before they’re published. That will give the podcasters more time to develop their ideas and get feedback on both form and content.

We’re not trying to claim that podcasting should replace all other forms of scholarly publishing, or that it will be for everyone. The idea is to add to the existing ecosystem of scholarly communication. 

Why do you think, up till now, there's been little institutional support for podcasting as a form of scholarly communication?
The university in general is a conservative institution--in the sense that it  changes slowly. It attaches to norms and it can be difficult to change those norms. 

Podcasts are not unique in offering a challenge to the status quo. In the last decade, people were working on blogs. Prior to that, when journals started to be published online, people thought that if a journal was digital, it wasn’t scholarly. We can look back and see this whole history of gatekeeping and restriction, and people have always had to break through [these barriers]. One way we’ve been trying to do so is to create scholarship with greater impact that appeals to a larger audience.

That said, there is a real concern within the humanities in particular, that the neoliberal university wants to reduce scholarship to metrics. Number of clicks as proof of impact is one of those metrics, and in the humanities we are rightly resistant to the use of these metrics. We need to be more nuanced in terms of how we think about impact. 

I also think that this concern or worry gets misdirected towards the people who are trying to do different work, when it should really be focused on the actual problem--which is the insidious neoliberalisation of our institutions. 

As a project, the Amplify Podcast Network asks interesting questions around the peer review process. Do you ever foresee a time when peer reviews—as a tool for evaluating scholarly work—will look different from how it looks now?
Even though it feels like we’ve had these tools forever, they’re actually recent. Peer review as we practice it today is maybe 50-60 years old. Its development aligned with the expansion of post-secondary systems following WW2, when the amount of scholarship increased, and traditional barriers to education changed during the ‘60s. The peer review replaced a system where if a person was a rich, white man, that meant that he was trustworthy—which we can all agree is garbage. 

Peer review also comes out of expectations of what rigorous science looks like. A single version of peer review emerged which is perhaps appropriate in the sciences, but is maybe weird in the humanities. This isn’t to say that peer review can’t be a useful tool to make our work better. At its best, it’s  a more formalized system through which publishers act as intermediaries to put works in touch with readers. In this formative and generative version, peer review helps us make our work better. At its worst, it can be a form of petty gatekeeping.

Likely, Amplify podcasts will be peer reviewed by other scholars, but what I find exciting about podcasting is that it invites other kinds of peer reviews. For example, after the first season of Secret Feminist Agenda, I published three really simple review questions and just invited listeners to respond. I got sixty to seventy responses that I incorporated into making the second season better. 

For many researchers in the humanities, DH is associated with digital exhibits and archives. Why is it important to incorporate podcasts into systems that will ensure their long-term preservation?
We have a tendency in academia to divide the labour that goes into scholarship and to create a hierarchy so that the labour of innovating and producing new ideas is placed at the top of hierarchy, and the labour of preserving and sustaining those ideas—making them discoverable, building capacity for other scholars to build on that work—is treated as service. 

I think we can add another feminist intervention here in terms of thinking about the undermining of labour that is about building communities and sustainability: making sure things last, making sure things work. This kind of capacity-building looks less sexy than a brand new discovery, and gets demoted. You can look at the work of important feminist scholars and see that they have dedicated chunks of their careers to things like editing journals in their fields. This is important work but it’s service and service is always dismissed. 

I think about this all the time with digital humanities projects. Someone might be putting a huge amount of time and energy into building a digital archive with robust metadata so that all scholars working in the field in the future are going to have this incredible tool that they can draw on to do their work and build all these possibilities. Yet somehow, this work gets treated as though it’s a less meaningful contribution than the work of someone who writes an article about the project. It’s such a clear example of how we value different kinds of intellectual work, and how fixated we are on the innovative and the new, rather than sustainability, preservation, endurance—all of these things that actually make our work possible. 

So there’s always power dynamics around where you’re going to spend your time and energy. I am committed to capacity-building, and capacity-building is about the unsexy business of thinking about infrastructure and preservation. If I want podcasting to be something more than what I do—if I want it to be something that people in general do—then I have to think about how to build capacity around this medium.

DHIL is working with the Amplify Podcast Network and Wilfrid Laurier University Library to create a digital archive of scholarly podcasts including episodes from Secret Feminist Agenda, and three series currently in production: Community of Praxis by Brenna Clarke Gray at Thompson Rivers University, Creaturely Conversations by Daniel Heath Justice at UBC, and Communication at the Edge by Kendra Cowley and María Alvarez Malvido.