To Podcast, or Not to Podcast?

by Peter Adamson

As I mentioned in a previous post here, I have, since 2010, been producing a weekly podcast series on the history of philosophy. Podcasts are an increasingly popular media format these days (it’s recently been claimed that 17% percent of Americans regularly listen to podcasts, on the strength of hit series like “Serial”), and they offer a unique chance to reach a large audience outside the bounds of academia, which has prompted me to wonder: why don’t more academics do it? All you need is a microphone and something to say; microphones are fairly cheap; and when was the last time you met an academic who had nothing to say? I don’t mean only in philosophy, either. I am a podcast listener too, and I listen regularly to several podcasts on straight history, hardly any of which are produced by academic historians. I listen to philosophy podcasts too, some of which are in fact produced by members of the profession. But the exception that proves the rule would be the excellent Philosophy Bites series: one of its co-hosts, Nigel Warburton, was an academic when he began the series, but quit because he wanted to pursue his activities as a freelance philosopher.

Perhaps the most obvious, and boring, explanation is the correct one: who has time? Indeed, I can testify from experience that podcasting is quite time-consuming, not easy to reconcile with the usual pressures of teaching, examining, research, and administration. Also, the rewards are not obvious. Would a hiring, tenure, or promotion committee look kindly on a candidate who offered download statistics in lieu of a monograph? On the other hand, we are increasingly being encouraged toward, and occasionally even rewarded for, activities that involve outreach or—as the U.K. government puts it, as part of their quest to ruin the language their nation gave to the world—“impact”. A funding proposal may well have better chances of approval if it promises to yield a plausible-sounding podcast along with other—to speak, through gritted teeth, with the U.K. government—“research outputs.”

But there may be less practical and more principled reasons to keep philosophy in the classroom and in books, and off the podcasting airwaves. Two come to mind, of which I think one is spurious and the other a real concern. The spurious objection would be that philosophy is too subtle, technical, and complicated to pursue in a format like a podcast. Amidst the proliferation of introductory volumes, handbooks, and so on that publishers are churning out, real philosophy is done in the books and articles we aim at advanced students and our fellow academics. Podcasts are suitable for telling stories, for punditry, and for entertaining conversation, but not for serious intellectual endeavor. Certainly, there is some truth in this. I have a hard time imagining that podcasts could ever serve the purpose filled by blind-review journal articles. But, as I more or less implied in my previous post here on the APA Blog, the right comparison to podcasting is not research—it is teaching. And you can get into more detail in a podcast than you can in classroom teaching. When I first began the project, I wondered whether I could be accused of “dumbing down” the subject for a broad audience. But in fact, I find that I have to tell my students to go listen to my podcasts if they want the full story behind the texts and issues I have time to present during actual class time.

This, however, brings me to a genuinely troublesome objection: podcasting is a one-way conversation, whereas good philosophy teaching (and arguably good philosophy in general) requires dialogue. Where a teacher can ask questions, pose puzzles, offer objections, and sense whether the students are engaged and following the conversation, a podcaster simply talks into a microphone. The audience members remain largely unheard and unseen—they are more statistics than students. I worried about this from the outset, which is one reason why I imitated the Philosophy Bites format by including in my series regular interviews with other academics. At least that way the audience is not stuck with only my way of framing the issues. One also shouldn’t underestimate the potential for feedback from the audience: on my podcast website, it’s possible to leave comments, I get reactions on social media, and I have recently done a Q&A episode responding to audience questions. But ultimately, the dialogical aspect of the subject is largely lost. When I had just started podcasting, a fellow academic of mine in London pointed out the irony of marrying such an up-to-date medium with what he termed a “discredited” model of academic life, in which a knowledgeable, authoritative instructor imparts his or her expertise to an ill-informed and passive audience.

I wouldn’t necessarily endorse all the presuppositions of that criticism. I actually believe there is such a thing as expertise, even if I wouldn’t always claim to have it with regard to the subjects I’m podcasting about! But I readily admit that if any academic subject should take dialogue seriously, it’s philosophy—they don’t call it the Socratic method for nothing. Will the virtues of dialectical exchange be lost as philosophical ideas are increasingly presented in the form of blogs, MOOCs, recorded lectures on iTunesU, and, yes, podcasts? Perhaps. But this is balanced to some extent by the prospect of spreading enthusiasm for philosophy beyond the confines of the university classroom. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the podcast is that it has allowed me to interact (on social media and the website) with listeners from outside academia, trying to answer their questions, discussing issues that came up in a given episode, and not infrequently thanking them for their justified criticism! Occasionally, audience members might become students, precisely in order to test their ideas in a more traditional teaching setting; or perhaps they will just argue with one another. This is one reason why, time and energy permitting, philosophy podcasting is something to be pursued in addition to, rather than instead of, teaching and research. It can supplement these more traditional activities, but not replace them.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. He is the author of the History of Philosophy podcast, which is appearing with Oxford University Press in the form of a series of books, entitled “A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.”

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9 thoughts on “To Podcast, or Not to Podcast?

  1. I’d like to revisit the idea of podcasts as research (or as a research tool).

    Consider academic books and journals articles. They are becoming increasingly accessible, sure. But still, very few people read them and there are still loads of obstacles to overcome before one can even start reading any book or paper.

    Imagine how much more accessible books and papers would be if people they automatically appeared in a podcast feed and one could listen to them on to go! The normal constraints that keep people from finding or reading would be gone. You no longer have to seek out the papers that interest you. They come to you. You no longer have to carve out time to sit by a paper [or a reading device] for extended periods of time. You can consume philosophy while they otherwise couldn’t – while getting ready in the morning, while commuting, while exercising, while cooking, while falling asleep, or the old fashioned way: in an armchair.

    Now sure, there are text-to-voice applications out there that already make this possible, but that requires one to manually find articles, download them, open them in the text-to-voice app, etc.

    The podcast ecosystem, however, is largely automated. People choose which podcasts to follow and they automatically get the newest stuff on their device.

    Now imagine that people could subscribe to a philosophy journal’s podcast. Every time the journal releases a new issue, they not only add PDFs to their website, they also release corresponding podcasts of to podcast feeds.

    Further, imagine that people could subscribe to certain research topics or philosophers (as opposed to journals). Research would become increasingly easy and amenable to various lifestyles.

    The more I think about this, the more that I think podcasts have at least as much value as a research tool as they do as a teaching tool.

    (Apologies for typographical errors.)

  2. I want to give a shout out to Myisha Cherry’s awesome podcast, The Unmute Podcast. (http://www.myishacherry.org/the-unmute-podcast/) It follows the interview format and I’ve learned about a whole bunch of great philosophical work from it that I’ve now followed up on and read.

    And I think The Unmute Podcast does some of what Nick Byrd mentions in his comment: it works as a nice research tool. I would love to see journals do podcasts with both shorter interviews with the authors maybe, and longer pieces where the authors give a talk on their paper, or just read the paper.

  3. I dispute that Professor Adamsons podcast is without dialog. The moments when dialog occurs are with our family, children, friends, coworkers, and others. When we can bring up ideas for discussion in hundreds of conversations, whoops, I mean dialogs. Broadening the impact of the material that is presented every week.

  4. I have to say that I think many professional philosophers go too far with the notion that good philosophy is inherently a form of dialogue. Teachers seem to fear that their students will take an approach the studied texts resembling Averroes’ approach to Aristotle or something like that. As such, lecturers often devote a good deal of class time towards inciting discussion that, almost always, is of very little value. With very few exceptions (Marx and Nietzsche come to mind), most students are predisposed against the central contentions of pre-20th century philosophers. The focus on criticism as opposed to comprehension (amongst undergraduates, many of whom don’t even do the readings), I find, has a tendency to bring about arguments based upon a failure to give the author the principle of charity they are due. This can have severely negative consequences on the students’ educational development, who is not forced to grapple with the problems resulting from their worldview (which surely is a primary reason for reading e.g. Hume on induction). Based upon their unfailing ability to ‘refute’ historical philosophers, many students make a gross overestimation of their own intelligence, and begin to take a dismissive view of earlier philosophy, wherein beliefs that are ‘obviously irrational’ (apparently even to people with no philosophical training) are accepted ‘without good reason’ e.g. substance dualism, theism.
    In lieu of this, I find that podcasts’ talking at the listener is a welcome change. It certainly strikes me as more productive than a 60 minute lecture where half the time is spent these self-proclaimed geniuses so generously inform us of their ‘brilliant’ ideas.

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