We had the great pleasure to talk about podcasting the classics in San Diego in early January. It was the sesquicentennial meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (formerly known as the American Philological Association) and the conference is held jointly with the Archaeological Institute of America. The AIA/SCS conference is a large gathering of academics, postgraduates, and teachers, with not only talks but a range of special events. This year the key note speaker was Mary Beard.
It’s fair to say that we were super excited to have the chance to talk about our podcast and to be stepping back, albeit briefly, into the academic world of conference papers and a consideration of all things to do with ancient languages, archaeology and history.
We were part of a panel entitled Podcasting the Classics presenting with a variety of other podcast hosts including Doug Metzger of Literature and the Classics, “Lantern Jack” of Ancient Greece Declassified, and Zoë Kontes of Looted. The panel was completed by Andrew Carroll who discussed the wide variety of applications for podcasts as teaching tools in the Latin classroom. The hosts of our panel, Matthew M. McGowan from Fordham University and Curtis Dozier from Vassar College made sure everything ran smoothly and were fantastic advocates of the podcasting medium on behalf of all the panelists. Incidentally Dozier is also a podcast host through his project Mirror of Antiquity.
We were in awe to be included in such illustrious company. So we packed our bags, planned a trip and travelled from the Sydney-side shores of summer delights and plunged into the very mild winter of California’s San Diego!
This was our first foray into the American conference scene and it operates on a grander scale to our experiences with the academy in Australasia. Larger means more talks, more parallel sessions, and the very real possibility of more conference fatigue – the heady tired feeling of listening closely and attentively for hours at a time. Best remedy: running off for a chat over food and drink with like-minded folk!
The conference was a grand experience in many respects, but it was also the site of at least two incidents of racism (they have been written about extensively; a collection of articles can be found here). We acknowledge the historical and structural factors that have shaped the discipline of classics and support the ongoing efforts to expand the field and tackle all forms of marginalisation.
Returning to the academic world, albeit briefly, was a chance to see cutting edge ideas and research, catch up with old colleagues now in far-flung places, and to reflect deeply about the discipline and our connection with it. It’s fair to say that all that was lacking was you, our excellent listeners. It is your support and loyalty over the six years we’ve been working on this project that have been at the centre of our progress. We thank you deeply for inspiring and supporting us! As a gift (questionable we know) we offer below the abstract we submitted as our proposal to join the panel and followed by the transcript of the paper we presented.
Abstract Submitted for the SCS Conference 2019
Outside the Gaze: Podcasting Ancient Rome as Woman Scholars
The Partial Historians is a Roman history podcast project which began in 2013 and continues today. The podcast was conceived as a project to keep the hosts in touch with ancient source material as we transitioned away from the precarity of the academy into different fields of labour.
Our personal impetus to podcast soon developed into a broader appreciation for the possibilities of the medium. We began to consider the role of podcasting as a public outreach platform for Classics and Ancient History and as a pedagogical tool for supporting secondary school syllabi. We were initially unaware of the gender imbalance in the field of podcasting, but it soon became clear that the fact that The Partial Historians is hosted and produced by two women serves to differentiate us. As our podcast evolved, we began to consider the value of offering a Roman history podcast from the perspective of women scholars.
An American report in 2013 suggested that the emerging popularity of the podcasting platform revealed a rapid take-up from men who were using the platform to create original content, and the question was posed, why aren’t there more women in podcasting? Although there may have been some correction to these statistics in 2017 – figures cited suggests that anywhere between 22-35% of podcasts are now hosted by women – there is clearly interest in a greater diversity of gender in the podcasting space and a particular interest in podcasts run and hosted by women.
When we turn to the field of Classics and Ancient History in podcasting, the numbers are even smaller at the top. An overview of the top ten podcasts on Roman history available through iTunes on the 1-3-2018 reveals a clear gender gap. Seven of the top ten podcasts are hosted by men (The History of Rome, Mike Duncan; Tides of History, Patrick Wyman; The Fall of the Roman Empire, Prof Bryan Ward-Perkins; Roman Emperors: Totalus Rankium, Rob and Jamie; The History of Byzantium, Robin Pierson; In Our Time: History, Melvyn Bragg; The Fall of Rome, Patrick Wyman), two are collaborative works where the hosts are not directed credited (History Extra Podcast, Immediate Media; The Roman Empire: introducing some key concepts, The Open University), and one is hosted by a woman (The Roman World, Dr Rhiannon Evans). Women in this field have a visibility problem.
Despite the lack of visibility and lower percentage of dedicated podcasts hosted by women, there are distinct advantages of podcasting as a scholar and as a woman. In this paper we examine the constraints and advantages. We explore how the aural basis of podcasting offers a safe space for conversation; how public engagement operates in the liminal space of the (male) gaze; the benefits of autonomy to decide the scope of our program as independent researchers, hosts, and producers; and the value of providing examining and analysis of Roman history in all its horror and glory from the perspective of women who are qualified in the field.
A Note on Our Paper
Given that we share cohost duties, there was no question that we would share the presentation of our paper. We both wrote sections of the paper and refined it together. On the day of the conference, Dr G presented the first part of the paper and the conclusion, while Dr Rad presented the second half.
Transcript of Our SCS 2019 Paper
Fiona and I met as undergraduates in the Ancient History Honours program at Macquarie University. We both continued on into PhDs, Fiona at Macquarie and myself at the University of Sydney. By 2011 we were both on the cusp of finishing our dissertations. We had known each other for years, but it was a late night conversation that prompted us to come together and collaborate on a history outreach project.
When we began, we didn’t realise how unusual we were. Two woman, experts in their field, talking ancient Rome together in a podcast. But there are some similarities in the academy and podcasting. One factor is that both fields trend male.
The data for the academy is pretty stark, certainly in our local context. In 2016, women on average make up 45.2% of academic staff in Australia.1 This sounds alright, but at the upper end of the career trajectory, only 28.1% of professors are women. While there is a fairly even gender split at postgrad level, this is not sustained as careers progress. Issues pertaining to accessibility across lines of gender, race, and socio-economic marginalisation are familiar topics in our domestic classics and ancient history scene. In a sign that Australia is perhaps slightly behind in these areas compared to the US, a dedicated body to addressing issues of inequality in the fields of classics, ancient history, ancient languages, and archaeology was only formally established in 2010.2 In short, there is inequality in the academy especially at the higher echelons. This affects cultural understanding of the subject in terms of expectations of who speaks and how they do so.
It is challenging to be precise with the figures for podcasting as the dataset continuously expands. In addition, most data reports focus on who is listening rather than who is producing content.3 In 2013 when we began, the figures were striking. Shapiro’s headline — “Why Are 70 Percent Of The Most Popular Podcasts Hosted By Men?” — said it all.4 Since then there have been encouraging signs in the US context that proactive steps are being taken to increase the visibility of women in podcasting. This includes the Werk It festival held annually by WNYC Studios.5 In the Australian context, podcasting is a growing field, but issues of gender are common with women coming together in closed facebook groups to share advice and seek support shielded from the “boys shouting into usb mics”.6
When we take a closer look at history podcasts, there’s something to the concerns about a gender imbalance in the genre. In our survey of 125 history podcasts, we found that 69.6% were hosted by men, 25.6% were hosted by women, and another 4.8% either had a balance of genders or rotational hosting. This male trend is important. When we began podcasting, the history genre was already characterised as male. Mike Duncan’s hugely popular break-through the History of Rome had been running since 2007! The single sonorous deep voice and script were considered normal. We knew that the single-voice podcast would not be possible for us. Instead, we took inspiration from Graham Duke and Ali Hood’s The Rex Factor. We love its conversational approach to history, one host the ‘expert’ and the other the ‘ everyman’. It wasn’t quite the right fit for us as we were both ‘experts’, but if two men could converse about history and gain a cult-like following, there was no reason that we couldn’t do the same!
These figures bring us to the salient point. Our podcast is unusual in a number of ways. Our qualifications in Ancient History and our gender meant that we had a “unique value proposition”. We embraced this. For years our tagline was “History brought to you by beautiful women” (we were nothing if not modest). We focused a lot on sex in our early episodes even going so far as to do a series of imperial biographies where we dedicated one episode to their life and a second to follow up on the scandalous sexual material. While we had some clear ideas about what we wanted to achieve, we were also determined to break away from the negative perception of academics as closed-off and inaccessible. We wanted to bring history to life by engaging in the historical process, by staying in touch with the source material and the practices of the discipline. Our conversations would be grounded in analysis and critique of the primary source material. We positioned ourselves as experts who “discuss, spar, and laugh our way through … the Roman world”. We wanted to bring our love for the absurdity of the human experience to bear in our appreciation of history. People are funny and there’s pleasure in exploring the foibles of human nature in the study of history. As it turns out we weren’t alone in this attitude. We began recording two years before the online outreach journal Eidolon with its mission to make “the classics political and personal, feminist and fun.”7 Looking back now, it seems we are part of a zeitgeist.
The issue of gender and voice is important to us and it is the very act of speaking while being unseen that is the super power of podcasting. Speaking without any visualisation allowed us a chance to explore our voices. Our podcast redresses the gender imbalance of the subject area by simply engaging in the act of speaking.
In the beginning we were very formal – Dr Radford and Dr Greenfield – but about twenty or thirty episodes in we started to find our groove, and Fiona became Dr Radness and I became Dr G. We didn’t want to lose our credentials and didn’t want to give the impression that we were just playing fast and loose; we trod the line between serious academic analysis and having a laugh at the Romans and ourselves.
It’s fair to say that in the beginning our podcast didn’t make much of a mark. If it left any mark at all we had no idea what kind. We didn’t have any clue how to promote it, we didn’t know how to really record sound, and we didn’t edit our work. But we loved it. Podcasting is a compelling genre. As the hosts, producers, and possibly the only audience, we initially sought to please ourselves and our hypothetical listener: an intelligent person who wanted a taste of history and wasn’t afraid of complexity. If we had listeners, we weren’t sure how to reach them. In lieu of that, we analysed ourselves endlessly: was our rapport clear? did we laugh too much? were both our voices sitting at the same volume range? We still didn’t know how to track our audience, but we both hoped that there was someone out there who loved history and wanted women’s take on the subject. We thrived on the autonomy. For us, podcasting immediately allowed us to talk history in the very ways that the academy didn’t really allow space for. Suddenly we were beyond the academic gaze. By starting a podcast, we’d created a platform for ourselves with one foot in the academy and one foot in popular history.
In the time we’ve been doing this we’ve seen podcasting progress from a hobby niche to something on the cusp of corporatisation. And we gradually gained skills – we started social media accounts, we made ties in the broader podcasting community, we did cross-over episodes, and we’ve both championed and been championed by podcasters we respect. We realised twitter was quite possibly the best way for us to network and stay connected with the field. As time passed and our popularity grew, we realised we were shifting from being outside the gaze of the academy to academy-adjacent.
It would be inaccurate to say that gender is the only factor that casts us slightly outside the ‘norm’. There has been an explosion of podcasts of all sorts in the past five years, including history. This means that we are rarely entirely alone; rather, we are in the minority. The fact that there are two hosts on The Partial Historians, not a sole authority, sets us somewhat apart but places us in the company of shows that have a classical focus such us Totalus Rankium, MythTake, and Ancient History Fangirl, and if we cast a wider net, The History Chicks and Historical Figures. This may seem like a matter of small note, but with the plethora of historical podcasts on offer, listeners can become increasingly choosy. We have been contacted by listeners who have told us that they generally avoid podcasts with more than one host. The advantage is that we are not providing a single perspective. Dr G and I chose different areas of specialty to pursue, studied different subjects at different universities, read different books, undertook different career paths, and all of this contributes to lively discussion.
This leads me to discuss our chosen format. We are again in the minority in our choice to be an unscripted podcast. By unscripted, I do not only mean that we do not write a script to read out during recordings. We have a very loose format that does not involve interviews or set questions and we do not edit our work. What you hear is exactly what was said during our recording session. In today’s podcasting climate, this is highly unusual. Even ‘conversational’ podcasts such as The Rex Factor contain scripted sections and the hosts of Ancient History Fangirl write scripts, edit them and rehearse before recording, followed by a final round of editing.8 Initially, I admit that we chose to do this because we did not really know any better. However, we have experimented with editing our show or recording differently to allow for more editing once or twice and we found that it made our conversations more stilted. We like the spontaneous nature of our format, and so we have stuck with it.
The existing structure that we follow only came about during the rather lengthy teething period for The Partial Historians. Our early episodes were literally taped conversations about our favourite subjects, with the theme of sex uniting the episodes. After exploring the Vestals, various emperors and imperial women, we decided that our show needed a new direction. We settled upon telling the history of Rome from the founding of the city, as more distinguished historians had done before us. Anyone familiar with this early period in Rome’s history will be aware of the lack of primary source material and as we progressed, we began to settle into a routine where I would read Livy’s account and Dr G would read Dionysius of Halicarnassus. This was due to a lack of time at first. We both have demanding full time jobs in education, partners, families and other projects that we work on. Reading both primary accounts, as well as secondary material, was often difficult. Being outside the academy means that we do not have as much time to read relevant material. However, comparing and contrasting the accounts provided rich material for our conversational style and allowed us to explore historical issues in a natural way. This set us apart, particularly from more straightforward narrative podcasts, such as Ancient History Fangirl. Our listeners responded positively to the way in which we could illustrate the academic historical process in an accessible manner. Whilst it may not appeal to everyone, we became increasingly comfortable in this period of the podcast in the conversational format. Feedback from listeners was positive, but some still cried out for structure, feeling like our show required ‘inside knowledge’. We learnt to become more mindful of providing recaps at the beginning of each episode, to provide explanations about terms and features of Roman life as they arose, and we added a rating system with five categories to wrap up the discussion, inspired by podcasts such as The Rex Factor, Totalus Rankium and The Gilmore Guys. Even with these additions, each episode was still ad lib and we only ever have a loose idea of the time period that we are focusing on before we hit record.
This style makes our podcast somewhat similar to the long-running In Our Time. This is an excellent and academic podcast that has enjoyed great success for many years. However, we set out to make a historical podcast that was different in tone to this existing content. Dr G and I created this podcast so that we could continue to enjoy ancient Rome and share that passion with others. We relish the humanity of the past; the foibles and quirks, along with the pathos and politics. Academic conventions have their place, but when writing in this style, students are generally encouraged to avoid sounding ‘chatty’ or too ‘excitable’. (Don’t you go using exclamation marks, young scholars!) Humour can be difficult to convey in this written style. Podcasting allows us to use language, expressions and comparisons that we would not be able to in a journal. We don’t believe that making jokes or noting the absurdity of people is incompatible with a critical evaluation of evidence. The incredible success of historical podcasts such as The Dollop (which is hosted by two comedians) has demonstrated that humour can be a valuable means to engage large audiences. The Dollop is an American history podcast, and thus tends to focus on modern history. There are few classical podcasts that utilise humour. Totalus Rankium is a very popular podcast that used to fall into this category, but after they completed their series on the Roman emperors, they have started covering American presidents instead.
Starting this podcast was originally a way to stay engaged with academia at a point when we both sensed that securing full-time employment in this field would be difficult. Whilst it has encouraged us to remain engaged with our studies of ancient Rome, we have felt ourselves becoming popular historians in the process and at a time when there is much discussion about what history should be produced, who it should be produced for and who the gatekeepers of historical knowledge should be – assuming that there should be any. There have been articles that criticise academics for living in ivory towers, writing about topics that are so specialised that they are essentially irrelevant9. On the other hand, there have been pieces that slam popular history for indulging people’s desire for nostalgia whilst glossing over uncomfortable truths and neglecting scholarship10.
We both obviously studied at a postgraduate level, but we also have some teaching experience at university. Nonetheless, we are not affiliated with any university, and therefore on the outside of the academy. There have never been more possibilities for people on the outside. Podcasts are just one new avenue opened to history by technology, but unlike mediums such as video games, VR or interactive websites, they no longer require huge amounts of expensive equipment, training or technological expertise to produce. Popular history is booming.
However, we do not see academic and popular history as oppositional, but symbiotic. Audience is one of the key differences between them. As we are not university academics, we can unite the new mediums with subject matter that will appeal to a popular audience. As noted by Paula Michaels (2014) academics are not always able to do this, as their areas of study can be highly specialised.11 We like to think that our podcast has the potential to form part of a bridge between academia and someone with an interest in history as we have some expertise in the field and read relevant academic material in preparation for the show. Our topic and approach will not appeal to those with mere curiosity about Rome – we are too specialised for that. Nor do we feel that our show is lacking in analysis – a common critique levelled at popular history. We may take a chronological approach, but we take our time so that we can assess the material, events and personalities along the way. The other bricks in this equation are the academics themselves who engage with people on social media like Twitter, give public lectures, and write for outlets such The Conversation and Eidolon. In a way, our approach is similar to one of the goals of Eidolon: “We want to be just as intellectually rigorous [as the academy], but we also want to take full advantage of the leeway to be freer and funnier than traditional scholarship.”12 Yet this once again places on the outside – somewhere in between academia and popular history.
Many podcasts are affiliated with a network. Belonging to a network provides many advantages, particularly in terms of the technological support, audio quality and cross-promotion. This would give us more time to focus on content. Networks can also mean that shows bear a certain trademark, such as the various historical podcasts produced by Wondery.13 In spite of diverse subject matter, shows have a similar sound, production approach and sometimes share hosts. However, networks can have drawbacks, which may include loss of creative control of the shows and promotion. Larger networks are also only interested in shows that have very high download rates (i.e. 50 000 per episode). If this was a path for us to pursue, it has to be the right fit. We sought freedom from the pressures of peer review and the gatekeepers of the academy and podcasting allows this to a larger extent.
In conclusion, we seem to be on the cusp of an epoch of academics finding ever more ways to communicate and connect with the public and other academics – forums such as #classicstwitter, Eidolon, and publications such as Eclectic Light spring to mind. Podcasting is one of these mediums and in fact, us presenting at this conference is a testament to the ways in which communication between academics is also responding to the technological progression of things like podcasting and the internet 2.0.
On a more personal note, being outside the gaze in a number of ways has given us an advantage to carve out a niche for ourselves in podcasting and the academic world. Our voices reach a wide listenership and certainly a broader audience than we could reach in our everyday teaching. It this bridge between the public and the academy that we see as our real strength and it continues to inspire our work.
12016 Selected Inter-institutional Gender Statistics (August 2017), Accessed 10/12/2018; “In 2016, Australian women held fewer academic positions than men at the senior lecturer level and above, but more than half of all lecturer and below-lecturer positions.” – https://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-academia Accessed 10-12-2018
4https://www.bitchmedia.org/post/why-are-70-percent-of-the-most-popular-podcasts-hosted-by-men: “According to the widely-used podcast-delivery phone app Stitcher, as of mid-February, 2013, out of the top 100 podcasts in their system, 71 are hosted by men (many by two or three men), 11 are hosted by women (of which three are just 60 second long podcasts), 9 are co-hosted by a man and woman, and 9 are either NPR or BBC news aggregation podcasts with alternating hosts and reporters, or it’s unclear who hosts. The statistics for iTunes results are similar.”
6 Binder full of Australian Women Podcasters – Closed fb group
7 Eidolon’s Mission Statement, August 22, 2017 https://eidolon.pub/eidolons-mission-statement-d026012023d5 – accessed 11/12/2018
9 Such as the 2014 New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof (‘Professors, We Need You!’) and in the same year in Australia, ‘Human Factors’ by Paul Ham in The Age.
10 Alastair Harper, “A popular history of history”, The Guardian, August 26, 2008; Elizabeth Norton, “Writing History: Comfortable, Unchallenging Nostalgia-Fodder?“, History Matters, August 28, 2013.
11 Paula Michaels, “What is Academic History For?”, The Conversation, March 25, 2014, https://theconversation.com/what-is-academic-history-for-24795
12 “Mission Statement”, Eidolon, last modified August 21, 2017, https://eidolon.pub/eidolons-mission-statement-d026012023d5
13 Such as Tides of History, Imagined Life or American History Tellers.