Written by Lucy Cheseldine
School of English, University of Leeds
The role of an academic no longer exclusively involves hiding in dimly-lit libraries, shrouded in subject jargon. Although thankfully, some of this continues for the good of deepening human knowledge. Words like ‘media’ and ‘presentation skills’ have now entered the researcher’s vocabulary, and rightly so. Whist some academics might once have shied away from these words, most appear to have taken them up with a new vigour for academia in the age of constantly changing and disseminating technology. The public distribution of research topics that were once obscure and mystifying to a public audience, is made much more accessible. If subject specific findings are communicated to a wider audience, they must be so through lay-man terms.
PhD researchers like me who are part of the latest batches of AHRC funding, are made familiar with these demands from the very beginning. In applying for a WRoCAH studentship, I found myself constantly distilling poetic jargon down to more relatable terms. At first, as a rather assuming M.Phil student, I felt it detrimental to the specific language I had spent years learning, defining, and re-defining in order to better understand literature, and even more specifically, poetry. But since starting my research degree, I have found myself almost right back at the beginning, asking the simplest questions about metaphor and voice, and learning these best by setting them out in clear, concise terms. It was with all of this recent experience in mind, that I decided to attend a workshop offered by WRoCAH and run by Media Players International, on how to make and deliver an effective podcast.
I have found myself almost right back at the beginning, asking the simplest questions about metaphor and voice, and learning these best by setting them out in clear, concise terms
The term ‘podcast’ is bracketed much more widely than I had assumed. For me, it is a purely audio experience. This is part of the reason I have enjoyed shows like ‘This American Life’ and the LRB podcast for years; I can put it on in the dark, shut my eyes, and be transported into another world in through an exercise in imagination. Yet podcasts actually come in various forms, and much of the academic output involves video. It was suddenly revealed that we were to be on camera. The full-day course was held at the University of York by the ex-BBC producers Lily Poberezhska and Tim Grout-Smith, was split into two halves. In the morning we discussed good practice in delivering podcasts by watching a range of output from Oxford and Cambridge on developments in science and medicine. From the very beginning, it was clear what might easily compromise the message of the content. Some speakers didn’t look into the camera, their eyes darting distractingly from side to side. One of the interviewers read monotonously from a list of questions without digging within the answers she was given by the expert. Each of use stored up this advice for the second half of the day, when we were to be interviewed, and, finally, to deliver a solo three-minute-thesis style run down of what we wanted our future podcast to sound like.
The scope of research in the room ran from servant stories at Chatsworth House to the use of images from Saturn in artistic practice. This all made for some thrilling listening. I decided to use my most recent research material, focussing on grief in Donald Hall’s poetry. I want to produce a podcast that introduces his work, along with more well-known poets, as part of a push towards using poetry as therapy and thinking space during difficult periods of our lives. It’s much harder than it appears to create a condensed story that grips the listener within the first few lines. We were instructed to find a hook, so to speak, to reel them in. It’s surprising how well we could address our own area of research without first explaining its most important aspect as a frame for the listener to hang more specific information from.
The key then, is to start with a question or an image that everyone can answer or imagine, and the slowly build on this throughout the talk. These were developments were teased out by the interviewer, but again, asking the right questions is much easier that it looks. Perhaps the most important thing is that the audience leaves the short audio with something; a chunk of knowledge or a new perspective that they have understood in repeatable terms. My more meditative approach needs much work, but the day was invaluable for its demand on communication. All in all, when a camera is close to your face, you tend to come up with something. This felt a bit more like being on TV than delivering a podcast. I would like the poetry I read aloud to be left hanging in the air of audio, without my own expressive features to take away from the words. On reflection, this was much better than just audio. It threw us as researchers in at the deep end, to use a well know cliché. And to swim in the sea of media, where we will, at some point in the future, have to justify our work and communicate our finding with our face facing the public.