Listen Up: Paper Argues Podcasting Can Transform Scholarly Communities and Society

Podcasting has created an open-access environment where people can create, circulate and consume audio quickly and with few limitations. Research indicates 55 percent of podcast listeners say learning is a major reason why they listen to podcasts, and this, combined with the low barriers to entry could make podcasting especially transformative for academe, a new paper in Frontiers in Communication argues.

In “How Academic Podcasting Can Change Academia And Its Relationship With Society: A Conversation And Guide,” Michael Cox, an environmental social scientist at Dartmouth College, and 24 other researchers (themselves academic podcasters), describe how academic podcasting could help various dimensions of higher education and offer suggestions for researchers interested in starting a podcast.

Various institutional barriers pose challenges for academic communities. For instance, many academic groups have difficult criteria for participation, so they fail to include academics from diverse demographics and career stages. To participate in academic community-building activities like peer review or attending conferences, scientists must voluntarily collaborate with other academics in addition to their existing work obligations.

“Given these challenges, new approaches for developing academic communities are needed,” the report reads. “In this context, we argue that academic podcasting can contribute positively to academic community development and extend engagements between academia and other partners to fulfill the goals of a more transdisciplinary science in ways that bypass the institutional lock-in experienced by other traditional formats.”

The article describes five dimensions of collaborative groups:

  • Epistemic factors are assumptions about what knowledge is valuable and how that knowledge can or should be formed.
  • Social factors include the establishment of communities, the ways those communities interact and how they result in collaborations and outputs.
  • Symbolic factors are how values, norms and expectations impact the ways communities are organized.
  • Spatial factors are how physical and conceptual spaces impact collaboration and communities.
  • Temporal factors are time constraints on community efforts.

In addition to transforming each of the five dimensions and potentially surmounting institutional barriers to collaboration, academic podcasts could be a scholarly research medium, a way for researchers to learn about and engage with their subjects and to transmit knowledge and academic findings.

“We need to remember that, by participating in academic podcasting, we are engaging with a unique platform that presents an opportunity to confront persistent barriers to broader social goals within academia and effect positive change between academia and society,” the paper notes.

Podcasts can transform the epistemic features of academic communities by creating a new and open format for knowledge production, teaching and learning. Compared to traditional formats for sharing academic findings, podcasts are less formal, more portable, value creative skills that are typically less prominent and broaden impacts and outreach.

Podcasts may also influence social interactions by connecting people verbally and expanding researchers’ social networks. From a symbolic standpoint, podcasts are useful because they are open access, offer free content and have the potential to feature diverse researchers. Spatially, users can consume audio content from any location and can connect people from anywhere. Finally, podcasts can be posted frequently and consumed quickly compared to traditional academic platforms like articles.

Podcasting isn’t a panacea, of course. For instance, researchers may view podcasts as a side activity, feel hesitant about being recorded and struggle to make genuine connections in a digital environment. Additionally, podcasts may be biased since podcasts often lack peer review and establishing a podcast and gaining an audience can be time-consuming. In addition, the putative scholarly podcaster needs a reason to podcast (and to be able to articulate that reason); “a lack of reflection about this,” the authors write, “can lead to podcast projects being started because it is fashionable to do so or because it checks a box that maybe does not need to be checked.”

But as a group who have legitimately checked that box, the authors are enthusiastic about podcasts’ potential.

 “A main take-away from our perspective is that podcasts can serve multiple benefits. Some of these relate to the fact that it is a spoken, conversational medium, and thereby represents the single most natural way for people to engage with each other, which has obvious benefits for community development. No other medium can fully replicate this function,” they write. “Beyond this inherent benefit, we have suggested that there are multiple ways in which podcasts can be used to promote community goals, some of which may not be obvious to future academic podcasters, including the use of podcasting as a research method and instructional tool in the classroom.”

The paper also provides a guide for people interested in academic podcasting. The authors note that people should consider their goals and motivations for starting a podcast, the format or style of the podcast they want to create and the relationships and support they have with their potential audience, institutions and potential funders.

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Emma Richards

Emma Richards is a student at the University of Florida studying public relations. She is the social science communications intern at Sage Publishing.

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