We had the great pleasure of presenting a paper at the inaugural Australian Educational Podcasting Conference held online on November 19, 2020.
Gretchen McCulloch, the co-host of Lingthusiasm, and New York Times best-selling author of Because Internet was the key note speaker. She set the tone for a fantastic set of conversations about public academics, sound pedagogical practices for bringing expert knowledge to wide audiences.
It was an absolute pleasure to catch up with Rhiannon Evans and Matt Smith whose work on The Emperors of Rome podcast is an outstanding example of exploring the complexities of history in an engaging manner.
We presented in a panel with Rhiannon and the hosts of the “history of the present” podcast Barely Gettin’ By. Emma Shortis and Chloe Ward bring their expertise in British and American politics and history to conversations about the world today. There’s plenty to enjoy here and we definitely recommend you check their work out!
Missed the Conference?
If you didn’t get a chance to join us, that’s okay! This post contains our conference abstract and paper for your curiosity 🙂
Dr Rad (left) and Dr G (right) conferencing online! Maybe we couldn’t go to Melbourne as originally planned, but we were lucky enough to catch up anyway..
There is a common catch cry that expertise is no longer heard or respected. This can be hard to hear as an academic. It’s also fair to say that academic work is written primarily for a specialised audience and many journals are difficult for the general public to access. But all is not lost. Podcasting bridges the gap between specialised knowledge and accessibility. Let’s examine the case of history. History is a blossoming podcast genre. This popularity is part of the appeal for academics looking to build a public profile or engage in outreach. As historians, we saw an opportunity to combine our specialised knowledge with the public interest in history. In this talk, we’ll share our experience in setting up a podcast with ambitions that are both scholarly and educational, how we found our audience, and how our work supplements and enhances our pedagogical approaches in the classroom.
The Partial Historians has come a long way from our humble idea to find a way to apply our academic skills and continue doing history afterr we turned in our dissertations and tried to figure out what came next. For a variety of reasons, staying in the academic market was not a viable choice for either of us. So how could we maintain our skills and pursue the subject we loved in a way that worked for our lives?
We considered starting a YouTube channel, but settled on the podcast format after seeking advice from friends and contacts. A podcast would entail a lower outlay of initial cost and neither of us had strong video editing skills. Our target audience would be an interested general audience. Those looking for more detail than they might expect in a documentary, and those who enjoyed getting deeper into a subject. We assume our audience is smart. The podcast allows us to use our skills and share our knowledge, have control over what topics we investigate, and pursue what we are passionate about. Ideas central to our podcast include:
- ancient Rome in all her warts and glory
- who speaks and whose voices are lost
- our love of classical reception – Rome on film!
- and our long lasting research passions: Spartacus and the Vestal Virgins
The term podcasting was coined in 2004. But even though podcasts had been supported by Apple since 2005, the flourishing of Roman history podcasts really started with Mick Duncan (The History of Rome 2007-2012). We released our first episode in early 2013. This was before the breakout podcast Serial (October 2014) that propelled the medium into the mainstream. It was also prior to the emergence of large networks and the powerful drive to professionalise and commercialise. Podcasts were popular but it was an amateurs’ medium and everyone learnt the ropes by trying things.
We were excited to bring a new perspective to the genre. Most of the history podcasts we knew about tended to be single-voice narratives produced by men. We knew it was important to bring women’s voices to the subject. Even in 2019, podcasts hosted and produced by women make up only about 22% of the market.
The conversational podcast that we enjoyed The Rex Factor (2010-present) was also hosted by a male duo. The fact that we were women immediately differentiated us. Conversation would allow us to model the critical thinking at the heart of the historical process. The added advantage is that conversation promotes accessibility – it allows us to show our joy for the ancient world with a light-hearted approach rooted in academic research. We knew this would be a different take for a show on ancient Rome in contrast to the scripted, serious in tone, narratives presented by other podcasters.
Finding our audience took time. There’s so many podcasts! Many are attached to networks and plenty leverage fame from other media, such as famous television personalities as hosts. It can seem pretty daunting. We were pretty sure we were just chatting to ourselves in the beginning!
Part of the process is in the set up. This means making sure your podcast is filtered into useful categories in iTunes which allows you to be discovered. Coming to grips with the social media landscape is a really powerful way to build awareness. Different platforms offer different potentials. Twitter is a fantastic space to connect with academics across the world, interested students, and listeners. Facebook feels more like a secret family. It generates a different style of engagement but Facebook also has an intrusive focus on encouraging pay-for-reach. Instagram offers a visually-driven communication and the key is all in the hashtags when thinking about how to help interested people find your work. Other platforms worth considering depending on your target audience are TikTok, Twitch, and YouTube.
The Role of the Public Historian
Podcasting has expanded faster than we could have imagined, and that includes history shows, thus making podcasting one of the largest areas of public history. It is important to note that we do not see public history and podcasting existing in opposition to academic history. As academic and fellow-podcastorian Liz Covart (2016) has noted on her blog, podcasting complements traditional history by sharing it with a wider audience. Our work could not exist without academic history. We rely on it to form the basis of our conversations, and in doing so, we hopefully expose more people to the scholarship that otherwise they may not come across or be able to access, or have time to read (Covart, 2016). After all, whilst there is increasing openness from academics on sites like Academia.edu, there is still restricted access in place with forums like JSTOR (Foster, 2014).
The beauty of new technology means that there is the possibility of disseminating information like never before. As far as podcasting is concerned, it is allowing people to decide when and where to listen to shows, they can tune in whilst they are engaged in other tasks, and, as has been noted by numerous scholars in the field, it has the potential to create an intimate atmosphere and a deep sense of connection between listener and host (Covart, 2016; Cuffe, 2019).
However, as with many forms of popular history and some types of public history, podcasts have been criticised for caring more about entertainment and popularity than detailed research and critical engagement with the past (Cuffe, 2019). Perhaps there is also some anxiety about who is making the history. Technology has allowed anyone with a computer to make a podcast, and some of the most popular history podcasts are not produced by trained historians (Salvati, 2015; Cuffe, 2019). For example, Dan Carlin or the History Chicks have enjoyed a lot of success (Salvati, 2015). Many shows are free, including ours!
A particular focus of critiques has been on the heavy use of narrative (Tumarkin, 2014; Cuffe, 2019; cf. Curthoys, 2012). This may be true of certain shows, but as with other types of popular history, shows that use simple narratives can be upfront about where their priorities lie and the level of expertise that lies behind the show. There are only a few shows that I have encountered that might try to disguise a lack of expertise with high production values. There is such a huge spectrum of shows out there, that it would be a mistake to tar them all with the same brush. This is also assuming that narrative is always problematic, when it can be a powerful device for engaging audiences and drawing them into history (Cuffe, 2019). .
Professor Hilda Kean has pointed out that public history can demonstrate how history is constructed and demystify it. In a similar vein, Cuffe (2019) has noted that podcasts can highlight the role of the historian and show the listener more of what is involved in ‘doing history’. This is important; as Foster (2014) has stated, a study conducted in Australia suggested that the average person did not understand what historians actually do, and if they can’t see that, there will be little appreciation of our value or what we can contribute to society or the interaction that takes place between the past and the present (Foster, 2014).
This relates to how we conceive of our show; we mostly provide a narrative, but it is not uncritical. We like to interrogate our sources and the stories that have survived about Ancient Rome. This has become more of a feature of our show since we embarked upon the narrative of Ancient Rome and we started using different narrative accounts as our main sources, with Dr Rad reading Livy and Dr G reading Dionysius of Halicarnassus. We are not constrained by page limits or formatting, we can let our conversation and debate about the past unfold naturally. This is not a luxury always afforded in academic texts. Salvati (2015) has drawn connections between podcasting and the Herodotean roots of history as the material is delivered orally and peppered with the opinions and reflections of the historian. We believe this is something that our show provides. As many shows do, we also provide lists of our sources when we use academic readings, and this can encourage listeners to go and seek this out for themselves. The skills that we therefore are able to highlight for our audience means that we are not only teaching them about the history of Rome or the process of a historian, but why the latter is important and hopefully encouraging them to not accept everything they read at face value (Cuffe, 2019).
We recognise that we are in a privileged position as podcasters. For a long time, we were entitled to high level access to university libraries. This gave us the ability to borrow books, access all journals (including digitally) and access online books from home. This has recently become more of an issue for us as our accounts have been downgraded. If we want the public to have access to high-quality, well-researched history, the issue of access for people not attached to institutions needs to be addressed somehow. Otherwise podcasting becomes an expensive endeavour, either for the historian or the listener. Resources, podcast equipment and website hosting are either paid for by the host, or they need to pass those costs on to their audiences. And it’s not just an issue of access to resources, but the increasing competition that comes from the large networks and the plethora of shows – being an independent podcaster has never been easier, but it’s also become much harder to find and build an audience. Opening the door to partnerships can only enhance the profile of universities and institutions. As noted before, this is not an oppositional relationship, but one that could become symbiotic and lead to the growth of both industries (Covart, 2016).
This would be a timely development. As the technology and access to it becomes better, the possibilities for presenting history in an immersive way that engages wider audiences are only increasing. In spite of fears expressed about the smooth narratives provided by podcasts, we know first hand that this is not a medium where listeners just passively accept what the podcaster presents. There is a constant loop of interaction – comments, reviews, tweets, posts, emails and so on (Salvati, 2015). It allows us to explore the notion of shared authority. We pay attention to our audiences and make meaning of the past with them, whilst not abdicating our position as experts, as people who engage in a process, and an ongoing conversation with the past and the present (Foster, 2014; Gardener, 2017).. The 1998 study conducted by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen has suggested that history appeals to non-historians the most when it allows them to forge personal and social connections (Salvati, 2015).
Relief found in Neumagen near Trier, a teacher with three discipuli. Around 180–185 CE. Photo of casting in Pushkin museum, Moscow.
Photo credit to: Wikipedia / Shakko
The Podcast as Pedagogy
One of the fantastic benefits of podcasting is the role that it can play in pedagogy. Central to the podcast is the voice and whether that is a single-voice in the style of a lecture, an interview that offers space to an expert to tailor their message for a wide audience, or a conversation that invites a camaraderie between listeners and hosts, podcasts can be structured to suit a variety of learners.
Research into the benefits of audio in learning is in part related to its accessibility for many students. The medium relies on the pillars of speaking and listening. Durbridge (1984) proposed that the spoken word can influence cognition as a speaker’s presentation adds clarity and meaning to the words themselves.
One of the great advantages of the expansion of podcasting is that you have a variety of entry points for differentiation in the classroom. We have found that podcasts like The Exploress and Ancient History Fan Girl provide an accessible entry into ancient history for secondary students. Our own work tends to be popular with undergraduate students looking to fill in the gaps from lectures and those looking for an accessible scholarly perspective.
The style of the podcast affects accessibility. Quick conversations require strong comprehension skills. So while the perennially popular podcast In Our Time can be fantastic for students who are looking to be pushed, a scripted podcast moves at a pace more suited to those still coming to grips with a topic.
One advantage for students when it comes to this medium is the capacity for repeat listening. In the case of scripted podcasts, there’s often the added advantage of a transcript. This tends to be less likely with conversational podcasts, but as the technology for automatic transcription improves, this is something we’d love to incorporate into our own work as well.
Podcasts have the advantage of engaging students with developing literacy, but the structure of the information is important. As we’ve gone deeper into the history of Rome from the founding of the city, we realised it is easy to feel lost in the details. We now begin each episode with a quick recap of where we’re up to in the narrative. This gives listeners the advantage of jumping in at whatever point interests them without feeling utterly at sea. We’re also excited about our new project of scripted decade summary episodes that we’re developing. This will provide an overarching view for listeners and help us connect with listeners who prefer scripted podcasts.
2020 has really placed a spotlight on online, hybrid, and asynchronous learning. And podcasts are a well-recognised medium that can help break up reading and watching content online. Listening on the go helps with time-management and you can incorporate podcasts into tasks involving note taking, summarising, and critical engagement.
We’re excited to see how our podcast continues to evolve. There’s a great sense in which podcasts have the capacity to bridge the divide between the academy and the broader public. This is a really rewarding space to be working and creating!
Covart, Liz, ‘Changing Stations: Radio Lessons for Tomorrow’s Podcasters’, April 7, 2018
Covart, Liz, ‘Digital Media and the Future of the Historical Profession’, April 8, 2018
Covart, Liz, ‘A Traditional Historian in a Digital World: How I Write History for Podcasts’, April 22, 2016
Covart, Liz, ‘Trends in Digital Communications’, November 11, 2015
Cuffe, Honae H. ‘Lend Me Your Ears: The Rise of the History Podcast in Australia.’ History Australia, 16:3 (2019), 553-69.
Curthoys, A. ‘Crossing Over: Academic and Popular History.’ Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 1:1 (2012), 7-18.
Durbridge (1984) cited in Hew, K. F. 2009. Use of Audio Podcast in K-12 and Higher Education: A Review of Research Topics and Methodologies. Educational Technology Research and Development 57.3; 333-357.
Foster, Meg. ‘Online and Plugged In?: Public History and Historians in the Digital Age.’ Public History Review, 21 (2014), 1-19.
Gardener, James B. ‘Trust, Risk and Public History: A View from the United States.’ Public History Review, 17 (2017), 52-61.
Salvati, Andrew J. ‘Podcasting the Past: Hardcore History, Fandom, and DIY Histories.’ Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 22:2 (2015), 231-39.
Tumarkin, M. ‘This Narrated Life: The Limits of Storytelling.’ Griffith Review, 44 (2014), 175-84.
‘What is Public History?,’ National Council on Public History, (accessed Nov 2, 2020)