Laura Perry sitting at a microphone and audio board at a recording studio or radio station.

On Grad School And Podcasting: An Interview with HPG Postdoctoral Fellow Laura Perry

How can the university best serve as a public commons for experimentation, resource sharing, and community knowledge formation? Answers to this question extend beyond classroom walls — traversing the realms of career development and meaningful community contributions outside traditional understandings of research. In our efforts to educate experimental scholars and cross-disciplinary practitioners, Humanities for the Public Good seeks to expand understandings of what it means “to do” the humanities in academic contexts and explore new tools and models. For HPG Postdoctoral Fellow Laura Perry, podcasting enabled her to chart a path that brought together her academic pursuits and commitments to local communities. HPG’s Dominic Dongilli interviewed her about those experiences, the opportunities they provided beyond the classroom, and how current Iowa graduate students can explore the potential of podcasting for themselves!

Why podcasts and why now? What about this current moment drives interest in the medium? 

LP: Like fireside chats or some talk radio, there’s a conversational, casual intimacy to podcasts that many find enjoyable. Even on podcasts that are more formal or serious, you get to know people and their ideas by listening to them talk in their own voices, hearing them right in your ears as if they were speaking just to you. There’s also a low barrier to entry. Podcasts are easy to find and easy to start. They’re often free to listen to, if you have WiFi or a smartphone, and if you want to make your own there are free audio editing platforms, like Audacity, and many tutorials online for beginners.

I suspect academics might also find podcasts appealing because they so often cover niche, narrow, deep passions, like those we pursue in the rabbit holes of our research. There are podcasts dissecting every episode of old TV shows like Gilmore Girls, mysteries like why McDonalds stopped serving pizza, the intricacies of long-distance friendship or cave paintings, the impact of a single Supreme Court case, or (of course) the popular podcast genre of true crime

Supposedly sci-fi writer William Gibson imagined the internet to come after first wearing a Sony Walkman in the early 1980s, alone in his own audio world even as he walked down the sidewalk. That’s something that seems normal now — I can’t imagine taking a walk without headphones — and podcasts are a part of that universe we carry in our pockets. 

The “solemn and quiet library” is an archaic visual for most, but grad school is still very much conceptualized as a book-ish endeavor. How did podcasting become a part of your graduate student experience?

LP: While I was getting my PhD at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I hosted a weekly radio show and helped produce a monthly podcast series. My radio show, which aired on UW’s student radio station WSUM 91.7 FM, featured interviews with feminist activists and artists as well as oral histories recorded with local Madison residents, like women from the first class of women firefighters or students involved in forming UW’s Afro-American Studies department in the 1960s. Producing and researching episodes gave me the chance to dive deeper into local histories and communities that my academic research hadn’t connected me with.  

I made the leap into podcasting when I joined the editorial board of Edge Effects, a weekly environmental magazine and podcast produced by UW-Madison graduate students. That experience helped me build skills that still come in handy today: collaboration, audio editing, interviewing, speaking across multiple disciplines and audiences, emailing strangers, discussing projects out of my niche area of expertise, and mentoring my peers. One podcast that I’m particularly proud of from my time as Managing Editor is the magazine’s first dual-language podcast, an interview with water protector Mario Luna Romero which we recorded and transcribed in Spanish and English. 

It’s not just the medium, but the creative affordances it provides in efforts to realize an idea. What do you think podcasts can enable for current graduate students? What opportunities for growth does it enable as a genre and practice?

LP: Podcasts can offer a place to experiment with new ways of conveying your research and sharing those ideas that move you and drive your work. Podcasts might also offer a reason to network (invite your favorite scholars onto your pod to interview them!) and practice communicating with different and new publics. Audio as a format might seem more casual, conversational, and fun than journal articles, but crafting persuasive narratives in audio can actually be quite challenging because it is so simple and sparse. Writing for the ear hones writing skills more broadly, and spurs us to rethink how we lecture, give conference presentations, prepare job talks, and so on. 

A university is a great place to start a podcast, and graduate school is a great time to experiment with audio. You don’t have to be a graduate student to start a radio show or podcast, of course, but I know firsthand how campus resources will give you a leg up— student radio stations, libraries, recording studios, microphones and software available to students, on-campus workshops, and, the most invaluable part of a campus community, the students, staff, and faculty who support the creative, technical, and collaborative work of podcasting.  

Where would you point UI grad students if they’re interested in exploring podcasting?

LP: There are so many ways. To start, join us for Podcasting at Iowa and Beyond on December 4! You’ll meet fellow podcast enthusiasts at Iowa or get to dip your toes into podcasting, if this is all new to you. We’ll be talking about the wide world of podcasts, local resources to support podcasting, teaching with podcasts, and our upcoming Spring 2021 podcast series featuring experienced podcasters and audio storytellers. 

There’s also a new UI podcast listening club for graduate and professional students. Another way to get involved in podcasting is to enjoy the podcasts created by the UI community! There are many UI alums creating interesting audio projects, like Anna Williams’s My Gothic Dissertation which is the first-ever podcast dissertation, Craig Eley’s newsletter Field Noise Transmissions, Robert Gutsche’s journalism podcast The J Word, Joy Melody Woods’s podcast Morning Joy about education and mental health, and so many more. (Eley, Gutsche, and Woods were all Obermann Graduate Institute Fellows, too!) 

There’s the College of Public Health’s podcast From the Front Row, about the public health student experience. Hancher Auditorium has been producing Hancher Presents for several seasons, with help from HPG graduate student interns this summer. Museum Weird is Pentacrest Museum’s new and delightfully-named podcast about all things museums, in Iowa City and across the country. UI Professor Nathan Platte co-hosts FilmCastPodScene with Rebecca Fons, which is FilmScene’s new podcast about movies for people missing the filmgoing experience. In response to the shift to virtual this summer, the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology Center for Teaching has been sharing short audio interviews with UI instructors in the Keep Teaching Strategies series. And speaking of work, the UI Labor Center podcast Speaking of Work does just that, exploring stories of Midwestern laborers, past and present. 

It’s no accident that many of these podcasts were started after the pandemic radically shifted how we work, live, and come together. Podcasts offer a different way to connect and find community, without the screentime of Zoom or the challenges and risks of gathering in person. Just look to Stephanie Miracle, a visiting assistant professor in the UI Dance department, who flexibly pivoted this summer—along with a team of graduate and undergraduate students—to transform a modern dance piece her students were set to perform in Mammal Hall at the UI Museum of Natural History into an audio performance.That podcast is appropriately named Mammals in Captivity.