Podcasting (and) the Victorians

This is the second post in the ‘Crafting Communities’ series on JVC Online. See Part One and Part Three.

When Thomas Edison debuted the phonograph in 1878, he circulated an ambitious list of possible uses. In addition to the reproduction of music, the use we most readily associate with his invention, Edison anticipated the creation of phonographic books for blind people. He also proposed applications with notably less traction, such as phonographic clocks designed to announce meal times.

Noteworthy among the items on Edison’s list was a role for the phonograph in education, specifically in “preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment” (Edison 646). In recent months, his vision of teachers recording lessons has been realized like never before — albeit in many cases by reluctant participants obliged by the pandemic to teach remotely. Indeed, for many of us, video lectures became our default mode of delivering remote content. However, given the history of audio recording, scholars of Victorian culture might feel an affinity for learning by listening. That possibility shaped the creation of the Victorian Samplings podcast, a podcast we hope will find audiences both in and beyond the virtual classroom.

Victorian Samplings features the voices of academics, artists, curators and librarians, and explores the stories that nineteenth-century objects tell. Its eleven episodes, scheduled for weekly release on our website and on Spotify starting in Spring 2021, feature conversations on crafting and singing; on connections between contemporary art and Victorian artifacts; and on scholars’ experiences working with rare and unique objects, such as a scrap screen made by Charles Dickens. We explore mass-produced ephemera, such as Valentine’s cards, and one-of-a-kind objects, including a costly custom binding of a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. With the help of our guests, we visit a nineteenth-century house museum and the workroom of a textile conservator and we explore the experiences of people who have been underrepresented in Victorian studies, such as the maker of a quilled Dakota vest, a group of African American singers who performed for Queen Victoria, and working-class mothers.

Figure 1. Victorian Samplings podcast logo, designed by Anne Hung; Crafting Communities Project site.

Many of our guests participated in the Crafting Communities project, a series of roundtables and hands-on workshops funded in part by the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. A way to extend the reach of these events and create a legacy for the project, Victorian Samplings has been enriched by the contributions of its student co-hosts, Anne Hung and Jessie Krahn. Their one-on-one conversations with guests have allowed for a more in-depth exploration of participants’ areas of expertise than a short roundtable presentation allows. They’ve created content that we think will interest researchers in the field but will also appeal both to a general audience and, importantly, to students.

Our work on Victorian Samplings has prompted us to think about the place of academic podcasts, including those on Victorian topics, in a rapidly expanding podcasting landscape. As fans of this very diverse genre know, podcasts are easy to access, consume, and enjoy. The portability of an audio file allows us to listen as we walk, or commute, or do laundry. People in the field of Victorian studies are likely to be familiar with podcasts that have Victorian-themed content. Notable among them is BBC Radio 4’s podcast In Our Time, whose stand-alone episodes feature three guest academics in conversation on a topic. Archived episodes on the Poor Laws (2018), Middlemarch (2018), William Morris (2018), Gerard Manley Hopkins (2019), and railway innovators George and Robert Stephenson (2020) are among this very popular podcast’s offerings. Another of our favourites is Dress: Fancy, an exploration of the history of costume co-hosted by writer Lucy Clayton and historian Benjamin Wild; their offerings include episodes on “Queen Victoria’s Ball Costume of 1842” (2020) and “Viva Victoria! The Enduring Appeal of Victoriana” (2019). Of course, there is also a wealth of non-podcast audio content available to the audio-curious Victorianist. Consider, for example, wonderful projects such as Phyllis Weliver’s Sounding Victorian, which houses Alisa Clapp-Itnyre’s fascinating Sounding Childhood project.

Figure 2. Phonograph and Wax Cylinders in the collection of Dalnavert Museum and Visitors’ Centre (Winnipeg, Manitoba).

While projects like Sounding Childhood remind us of the value of podcasts for public engagement, we are especially excited about the pedagogical value of podcasts. Working on Victorian Samplings at the same time that we were teaching and learning remotely heightened our team’s awareness of the value of assigned or recommended listening. For screen-exhausted instructors and students, audio-only content offered us a break from our laptops and desks; this respite proved especially valuable for students who were spending long hours looking at a professorial talking head or a stultifyingly steady flow of Powerpoint slides. And assigning podcasts as course content is easily done. Just as we don’t hesitate to assign a portion of a text, such as a chapter of a monograph, we should not hesitate to assign a portion of a podcast. Time stamps on an audio file work just as well as page numbers when an excerpt is called for. And, in the same way we gather to discuss readings, attend a classic chalk-and-talk lecture, or hear a conference paper, we can gather, be it remotely or in person, to discuss our shared listening. Indeed, as James Mansell (University of Nottingham) noted at a 2021 Paul Mellon event, “Speaking of Art: Art, Histories and the Podcast,” listening to recorded audio together is not only possible but productive. Mansell has experimented with live listening events held in museums, sharing audio recordings with an audience and then facilitating a discussion about both the audio material and the listening experience. It’s a great option for humanities instructors to have in mind as we continue to explore the role of audio in both remote and face-to-face university classrooms.

One of the things we gain from assigning audio instead of critical readings is heightened emotional engagement. For many people, listening to conversations generates the thrill of listening in; for some students, a relaxed conversation will be easier to understand than dense academic prose. Listening to different voices and the emotions those voices convey—feelings of excitement, concern, uncertainty, or curiosity—can engage us in the same way that very powerful writing can. Conversation also models for listeners, including student listeners, ways to talk about ideas, to wonder out loud, and to take risks. As we’ve edited audio, listening and re-listening, we’ve been energized by how the voices of our guests express their passion for the work they do. We also hope there might be something especially welcoming to students about our format, which features the voices of two talented students who research, craft, and ask questions that shape our interviews, an approach that could increase students’ engagement, their assigned audio content having been produced by peers.

Figure 3. “Professor Edison Exhibiting the Phonograph to Visitors, at his laboratory, Menlo Park.” Frank Leslie’s Boys and Girls Weekly; June 15, 1878.

As with so many aspects of asynchronous education, accessibility is an issue. Following the lead of many other podcasters, student co-creator Natalie LoVetri has created transcripts of each episode of Victorian Samplings for deaf and hard of hearing audience members. As one of our student co-creators noted, these transcripts can also be useful for EAL listeners; the same goes for students who find their comprehension significantly improved by listening while reading, a reading mode many students are experimenting with in the age of the audio book. Quality transcripts also make podcast segments easily referenced and available for quotation in student assignments or other kinds of research. We wonder if the transcription of a conversation with a scholar can generate text that students may find easier to understand than traditional academic prose–including the published work of that same scholar. Pairing a podcast interview with an interviewee’s published writing might offer students the opportunity to engage both close listening and close reading skills and to consider differences between publication and conversation, prompting discussion about communication, audience, and genre. Our episode pages, researched and created by Madison George-Berlet, share open-access resources that students will find useful. And, as we will discuss in a follow-up blog post, we suggest pairing podcast listening with a hands-on activity that invites students to craft as they listen, working with the materials and practices discussed by our guests.

If podcasts are easy to consume and assign to students, they’re also easy to make, even during a pandemic. As academic podcasters already know, episode planning, guest recruiting, and editing can be time consuming. But, as our student co-creators have noted, preparing for interviews and editing the results sharpens research, writing, and editing skills. And there are similar rewards for instructors: we’ve been learning about Victorian material culture from our guests at the same time that we’ve been learning the ins-and-outs of audio editing. A bonus for both instructors and students on our team is the way that taking on a podcasting project during the pandemic helped us feel less isolated and more engaged, connecting us with one another and with our expert guests.

Figure 4. Audacity file of a Victorian Samplings episode.

In terms of tools, podcasting makes a light demand: a Zoom meeting with an interesting person and an open-access audio-editing program, such as Audacity, can get you far. While we would love to be sitting down in person with interviewees, in the kinds of places where academics connect—in libraries or archives or at conferences—we’ve been able to interview people on three continents without leaving our homes (as much as we might want to). We’ve also worked as a team across three Canadian provinces, without ever meeting in person, working exclusively online, passing audio files and ideas between us.

As more academics experiment with podcasting—for teaching, for public outreach, and for sharing research with peers—people who like to learn by listening will have more options than ever. Dr. Hannah McGregor of Simon Fraser University is one of the scholars leading the way on both making academic podcasts and theorizing their proliferation. The co-creator of two podcasts, Witch, Please and Secret Feminist Agenda, McGregor is exploring, in partnership with Wilfred Laurier Press, the development of a peer-review process for academic podcasts, a process that could improve podcast offerings, help administrators evaluating tenure and promotion files, and guide would-be adopters of podcasts as course content. Along with Siobhan McMenemy, McGregor co-directs the Amplify Podcast Network, which aims to build awareness about and capacity for scholarly podcasting. You can learn more about McGregor’s work on “Podcasting as Scholarship” in an episode of Below the Radar, which is hosted by Am Johal and produced by Simon Fraser University’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.

Edison’s vision for talking clocks hasn’t exactly taken off, but learning by listening is a different matter. We invite you to listen to Victorian Samplings and to explore the other resources available from the Crafting Communities project at CraftingCommunities.net. If we can help you add podcast content to your courses or if you have podcast content to share, please let us know. We look forward to amplifying the possibilities for learning by listening that Edison identified–as well as the many scholarly voices who have much to teach us about Victorian material culture.

The Crafting Communities Project is a collaboration among Andrea Korda (University of Alberta), Mary Elizabeth Leighton (University of Victoria), and Vanessa Warne (University of Manitoba). It is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada, and the Universities of Alberta, Victoria, and Manitoba.

Works cited

Header image: Paul Uestel, Le Phonographe Edison, à la section des États-Unis (1889), Brown University Library.

Edison, Thomas. “The Perfected Phonograph.” The North American Review, vol. 146, no. 379, June 1888, pp. 641-50.


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