Tara Brabazon: 60 seconds of scholarship

March 25, 2009

One day, I intend to conduct a study of how university staff download from iTunes. Do vice-chancellors – productively and efficiently – swoop into the site, grab the top ten lectures from iTunes U and then vacate before being tempted by the new Mark Ronson remix from another big-haired diva?

Do our Centres of Wellbeing carefully download self-help audio books so that they can Believe and Achieve and inspire the rest of us to Believe and Achieve too? Perhaps marketing and communication departments want to discover new platforms and portals for corporate branding. Pens and T-shirts are fine. We can maybe stretch to a tie and tiepin. But the new range of those weird and slightly disturbing teddy bears wearing academic gowns and mortar boards is a more menacing promotional initiative. Their mocking teddy eyes seem to follow me around the room. This overdressed bear could almost star in his own splatter flick. Teddy goes to Uni. Teddy graduates. Now he wants to Taser his teachers.

Beyond my downloadable delusions and teddy traumas, many universities are testing, stretching and inventing strategies to develop innovative intellectual and promotional content for podcasts and vodcasts. Such experiments are important as they align public service and public relations. Very often – too often – the functions of academics and marketers employed by the same university disconnect and dissociate. I am interested in media platforms that realise the potential to align selling and thinking, crisis management and knowledge management. Many universities are accepting this challenge to create new ways of exchanging ideas while concurrently branding the campus.

The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences has released – on both iTunes U and YouTube – a series of “60-second lectures” from its staff. The mental agility, creativity and humour of these presentations are clear. Less obvious is the planning and work necessary to enact this project, being masked by the brevity of the podcast. The diversity of topics is extraordinary and productive. Alan Charles Kors tracks “Human history” in just over a minute. Charles Bernstein asks, “What makes a poem a poem”, showing his argument by the form of delivery as much as the content of the talk. Liliane Weissberg wrote a 60-second “letter” to Freud exploring his understandings of time. Rebecca Bushnell probed “The nature of nature”. Michael Gamer – in questioning “Major Matters” – described this new form of Pennsylvanian podcasting as “lecturer haiku”.

There are two great academic and promotional benefits of iTunes to our institutions. First, it activates an archival function, sonically capturing and disseminating conference presentations and lectures from great scholars that we would rarely have a chance to see or hear. The University of California has gathered important thinkers in its “Conversations with history”. Other universities have released lectures from the late Edward Said, resolutely impassioned yet gravely ill, and the very-much-alive Richard Florida in full vodcast flight (of the creative class). The historical value of recording and cataloguing professorial inaugural lectures is shown by the Division of Arts at the University of Otago. Over the past 18 months, staff there have gathered a diverse and highly entertaining range of topics: from Plato to museums, from religious freedom to finding love later in life. My favourite session is Geoff Hall’s “Bloody idiots! Have drunks behind the wheel reached a crossroads?” A tremendous speaker, the rigour of his research and the clarity of his argument confirm the value of such recordings. Such a decision and commitment to capture these events promotes the scholarship of staff but also increases the quality of information available from sonic media platforms more generally.

The second mode of using iTunes U – as a testing ground for innovative presentations of ideas – is even more important. The University of Teesside is experimenting with advertisements, lectures and even a recording of a VO2 max test. Imperial College London runs a professionally packaged monthly magazine podcast, introducing research, researchers and events. The University of Warwick provides engaging interviews with academics when they release new books or reports. From formal marketing initiatives through to relaxed dissemination of new knowledge, this repackaging of academic research through sonic media has a role in branding, but it also furthers the propagation of scholarly publications and ideas. It is easy to list in a corporate plan the importance of widening participation in education and increasing the dissemination of academic work. It is much more difficult to develop policies and strategies to enact these aims. There must be a considered alignment of marketing plans, available hardware and software, academic and administrative expertise and the desire and imagination to test and try new ways of conveying knowledge to new audiences.

Universities are public institutions and must – through research and teaching – occupy a positive and dynamic function in creating opportunities and spaces for thought, reflection and reassessment. At this moment where capitalism has become a performance art experiment, there is a need to mediate between the university as a corporation and the university as a public servant. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once said that “the culture of consumer society is mostly about forgetting, not learning”. Academics are in the enterprise of learning, so we must carefully monitor and digest his warning. Podcasts can help us log and remember the important ideas as they emerge while improving the calibre of debate both on and offline.

The importance of independence in thought, approach and interpretation is part of the public function of universities. This role has never been more important, as the media are bouncing through a period of audience fragmentation and digital convergence, vertical integration of production and consumption and horizontal integration of formerly disparate industries. Through the iTunes U portal, there are opportunities for academics to speak to different audiences through freely available podcasts of interviews, oral histories, micro-lectures and special university events. By offering alternatives to disposable music and amateur podcasters who (unfortunately) can still work their microphones if not their mouths after that third glass of red wine, we can present an academic perspective while extending the trajectory and audience for our scholarship. In 60 seconds, we can find alternative models for learning, thinking and listening.

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