Following my last post, and in preparation for what will be a significant amount of engagement work with the DEMAND Centre (more on that later), today I have been catching up on some recent academic experiments with audio. As Les Back argues in a podcast on the Goldsmiths University site, podcasting provides a very different mode of engagement than the tradition of university lectures, where students are expected to learn passively and silently from someone with a clear authority over them. While podcasts still engage aurally, they aren’t as easily controlled – and here he quotes Dizzy Gillespie:
You can’t steal a gift… and if you can hear it you can have it.
Part of the value of podcasting then is that it can’t be controlled, and as such it can become mobile more easily. This gives the medium a political potential for “bootlegging though and insight” as Back suggests, as students take others’ voices for a walk and can perhaps as a result engage differently. Given the fact that prominent researchers like Doreen Massey have discussed how their own ideas often germinate while walking, I think there is considerable potential in this portability of academic voices.
One project that has been exploring this potential is Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart’s recent project on off-grid lifestyles in Canada. While touring the country and speaking with people about their off-grid lives, the pair have been producing short soundbites on their very interesting soundcloud stream. Some are curated around topics like how and why people live off grid, but others just present snippets of participant’s voices: talking about how they deal with an excess of hot water or about a stove that they love. I think these soundbites are exciting because they not only provide a glimpse into people’s lives that is much more vibrant and immediate than what is often available through writing, but they also quite valuably eliminate the filter that can appear and cut public audiences off from academic research. The voices are a gift – perhaps the beginning of a conversation, or even a way to bootleg skills of self-sustainability. Regardless, I think Vannini and Taggart show that there are a lot of possibilities for exploring these audio engagements.
I can’t wait to discover more examples of how people are already giving and receiving through sound-based research and research-based sound.
As part of the project I am currently wrapping up on the everyday lives and objects of Hong Kong return migrants, Kelly Li and I decided to experiment with modes of communication that are less familiar to us. After getting hooked on several excellent podcasts in the last few years (including This American Life and Radio Lab), I became curious about the possibilities of a pared-down podcast format for disseminating social science research. While I had previously been part of interview- and advice-based podcasts, I thought there might be space for something shorter and more evocative. That is, rather than presenting expert opinions, I was interested in how podcast formats could be conducive to short musings that help to generate questions and new lines of thought.
With this in mind, we decided to jump in and give something a try to see how it would work. This is certainly an experiment, and we don’t have the resources or time that more professional podcasters do. But we thought it would be worthwhile to try the format out and see whether it might spark new interactions around our work.
The result? Something I have decided to call ‘Short Social Stories’. Each episode is a think-piece about five minutes long that tries to encourage curiosity about parts of everyday life that we often don’t pay attention to. The first three offerings highlight thoughts arising from our project on Hong Kong migrants and the objects that they migrate with. If these go well, there is space to expand into other topics and even have other people join in.
After exploring different options for hosting, I decided to go with Soundcloud and thus far I haven’t been disappointed. While this platform is more known for its music-related community, I think the presentation of sound files as waveforms where you can comment on a specific part of the track has a great number of possibilities for public/academic interactions. So far I’ve made use of it by including any direct quotations in the comments, to ensure that due credit is given to other authors and our participants. But I can see the potential for further interaction as well – both questions and comments could be linked to specific parts of the dialogue in a way that isn’t possible on some other hosting sites.
In any case, if you have time please take a listen and let us know what you think. As I say, this is an experiment, and any feedback and constructive criticism about how it works or whether it’s interesting to you would be much appreciated!
If you’d like to see the podcasts on the Soundcloud site itself, you can visit my page here: https://soundcloud.com/everydayallie