October 21, 2009
By Jessica Pritchard
1. How does podcasting affect the production and dissemination of historical knowledge?
Peter Limb and I launched the Africa Past and Present podcast in January 2008 to make African history and African Studies available to a broader public. We thought podcasting could help democratize knowledge and partly address our frustration with the limited impact of African scholarship on mainstream knowledge about Africa.
Building on MSU’s strengths in digital humanities (www.matrix.msu.edu), we chose a “radio magazine” style for the podcast. Each thirty-minute biweekly episode features a “fireside” chat-type interview with a scholar (sometimes more than one). We try to keep things interesting for our audience and for ourselves by covering a wide range of topics with our guests, such as Islam in West Africa, slavery and the slave trades, Africa’s place in the Indian Ocean, environmental history in Malawi, Garveyism, American Zulus, colonial prisons in Senegal, and soccer.
Getting back to the original question, it’s difficult to say if and how our podcast affects the production and dissemination of historical knowledge about Africa. We do know that our audience is international and growing. In September 2009 we set a new record for unique visitors to the site (4,647) and total downloads (3,869) from 63 countries, including South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, and Egypt. Several university libraries list our podcast as an African e-resource (for example, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/africa/cuvl/cult.html), and the content is finding its way into scholarly engagements thousands of miles away from East Lansing. For instance, a colleague recently gave a talk in New York and during the Q&A a graduate student prefaced her question with a comment along these lines: “In your recent interview on the Africa Past and Present podcast you said that . . .”. Can you believe it? Another example comes from a prospective graduate student who told us he’d listened to our podcasts during his long journey by car from California! He is now enrolled in our African history doctoral program at MSU (http://history.msu.edu/african_history1.php) so maybe the podcast played a small role as a recruiting tool.
2. What pedagogical applications do podcasts offer?
Podcasts can be used in the classroom in many different ways. While there is a learning curve with this medium, instructors can easily record lectures and make them available on a course web site. With basic IT knowledge and minimal technical support, interested folks can craft documentary-style pieces and soundscapes that place people in a particular historical time and place (e.g., World at War podcast: http://worldatwar.libsyn.com/). Others keep an audio blog to comment on current events or share their thoughts on “hot” books in their field. Podcasting can also enhance online teaching and foreign language training. In short, there are many possibilities.
In my introductory African courses, I assign episodes of Africa Past and Present to complement lectures, discussions, and more conventional assignments. For example, as part of the “Spirituality and Religion” unit this week, students are reading my colleague David Robinson’s work on Islam in Africa and listening to episode 1 of the podcast—an interview Robinson and I conducted with Dr. Cheikh Babou, a Senegalese historian at University of Pennsylvania, and author of a new book, Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853-1913. Several scholars are now using our podcast in their Africa courses, which we encourage under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Students generally report that they like that they can listen to the podcast on their iPods on the bus, while working out and elsewhere; it allows them to productively fill in “dead time” and thus extend learning outside the boundaries of the classroom.
3. What kind of role do you see podcasts playing in digital preservation and electronic publishing?
Central to our mission of democratizing knowledge about Africa is the creation of a free, open-access, Web-based digital archive of all the podcasts. Any user with an internet connection can listen and download the shows. Moreover, the wonderful eGranary Digital Library (http://www.widernet.org/digitallibrary/), a low-cost, innovative way to deliver digital teaching tools to scholars and students in developing countries, redistributes the podcast to many African universities and schools lacking adequate internet access.
The podcast itself is an electronic publication. It’s a wide ranging and informed intellectual labor of love that comes out of two years of hard work. The medium allows us to publish on a regular basis on issues of interest to our academic community and the community at large that sometimes do not fit neatly into the conventional print outlets. In a world of iPhones, Kindles, and peer-to-peer file sharing, traditional monographs are under threat so historians need alternative outlets. I think it’s terrific that the AHA is covering our podcast and discussing online publishing; it’s a sign that it is starting to move with the times and also legitimizes what we are doing.
Some of our podcasts have focused on African e-publications, such as Sean Jacobs’s Africa is a Country blog (http://africasacountry.com/) and the “New Media and Southern African Studies” round table discussion held at the last North East Workshop on Southern Africa. In the near future, we plan to interview scholars working on African digital humanities projects like Diversity and Tolerance in West African Islam (http://westafricanislam.matrix.msu.edu/) and others.
But our experience with podcasting also suggests that e-publishing and print publishing can complement each other. For instance, a transcript of our interview with Professor Robert Edgar (Episode 7, April 15, 2008) was published in a recent issue of the journal Safundi (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17533170903020973).
4. Explain the importance and role of partnerships with scholars in Africa in the production of your podcasts.
About half of our guests have been African scholars, either faculty visiting MSU or individuals based at other universities whom we speak to via Skype. In January 2010 I am going to South Africa for a year on a Fulbright and part of my plan is to interview local scholars and build a stronger network of Africa-based experts for the program. Maybe podcasting can help narrow the digital divide between Africa and the much of the rest of the world and in the process develop scholarly partnerships based on the principles of equality and reciprocity.
For more information, visit the Africa Past & Present podcast or see our previous blog post, “Africa Past and Present: The Podcast about African History, Culture, and Politics.”