By Ahmed Yaqoub AlMaazmi
When COVID-19 turned the social world upside down, scholarly connections and conversations became restricted or altogether severed. Like other graduate students and academicians, I lost many opportunities to participate in workshops, conferences, and other learning avenues to widen scholarly networks, discuss research interests, and open conversations. I pondered, how can I overcome this barrier known as 'social distancing' by finding alternative mediums to reach out to my colleagues and continue expanding my scholarly networks?
While trying to solve this conundrum, I listened to a podcast, the New Books Network (NBN), an author-interview platform featuring academic books in various fields of study. As a graduate student, it is the first place to familiarize myself with a book and its author's intellectual profile. It is a convenient and engaging way to consume knowledge while performing other daily tasks in a busy schedule, such as exercising, cooking, and commuting. However, it struck me that among the many 90+ subjects, disciplines, and genres of the NBN, I did not find a space for my primary educational interest. Thus, I decided to contact the founder of the NBN, Dr. Marshall Poe, to propose launching a new podcast channel, The Indian Ocean World (IOW).
Dr. Poe was skeptical about the utility and viability of my proposal for a new channel. The young scholarship of the Indian Ocean World is not well-known compared to other established area studies since the Cold War. There are no institutionalized annual conferences or dedicated departments, programs, and endowed chairs for the IOW. Except for a handful of nascent IOW centers, the field lacked a connected scholarly community. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prospects of promoting such a field became further impeded.
The road was not paved. I did not find a manual on how to launch an academic podcast for such a small field, nor I had the financial means to launch a new podcast platform. Most importantly, I realized that the NBN would better serve such a project by cross-listing the podcast episodes on as many channels as possible and the home web page. Such an exposure meant that listeners from other fields and interests would be introduced to books that they may not have necessarily sought after. This allowed for networking when it would not have otherwise happened; by learning about the books, their authors, and the hosts asking the questions. Realizing the potential of the NBN, I began training myself to be a podcaster.
Instead of enjoying listening to a podcast, I began to take notes on how to organize a conversation to present an author, a book, and communicate its ideas to the listeners. The academic podcast genre aims to distill scholarship, introduce it to a broader audience, and generate a conversation between scholars, students, and the public. A podcast interview is not necessarily an uncritical promotional endorsement. According to the NBN's editorial policy, the platform acts as a "bookstore" in which readers make educated choices. In other words, "Here is a book by a serious author whose viewpoint you may or may not agree with. Listen in, and decide for yourself."
Against all of the odds and lack of a support base, I selected a list of potential books for the series. Shortly after contacting the NBN, I received a welcoming email from Dr. Poe approving launching a special thematic series for the IOW. According to Dr. Poe, "They are designed to allow a host or group of hosts to concentrate on a particular topic that falls below the level of an independent channel." After receiving the green light, he shared two files, "NBN Hosts Guide" and "How to Record a NBN Interview," along with a detailed email that serves as an introduction to get started. Equipped with the needed skills and approval, I went ahead to convince, recruit, and promote the IOW series on social media to build from the ground up an oceanic community of scholarship.
Initially, I did not receive an enthusiastic response. Academic labor is usually not directed at the public. It seemed for many as a professionally unrewarding service. Like me, a few others, however, realized the potential of making knowledge public and the value of scholarly networking. Hosts and co-hosts such as Kelvin Ng, Michael Rumore, Jenny Peruski, Alison Bennett, Robyn Morse, Yasmine al-Bastaki, Tamara Fernando, Saumyashree Ghosh, Janna Aladdin, Zifeng Liu, Lindsey Stephenson, Mohammed al-Sudairi, and others from the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean answered the podcast call. Another 'thinking lab' for the field and its scholarship was the 'Zoominar' "Across the Indian Ocean: Scale, Time, and Connection in Trans-Regional History" taught by Prof. Fahad Bishara, in which students from the offering university UVA and outsiders established a collegial study group.
I laid the first brick with the first interview. I was nervous, lacking experience, and being a non-native speaker of English. With the following interviews, I became better at adapting to different communication styles. I encouraged co-hosting the first episode between an experienced host and a beginner co-host to build confidence and provide feedback on conducting the interview. I also created an online document to introduce the hosts and list potential books to share our scheduled selections for the series.
The technical needs for recording an interview are fairly simple. I invested in purchasing an adequate microphone to enhance sound quality, while the recording software is freely available. That was all that I need—as the NBN's editor handles editing. Emailing authors and setting up a time for the interview is the bureaucratic part; preparing the questions and improving the interview's quality is the creative dimension. To read a book for this purpose taught me how to ask questions that help to unpack the main ideas, themes, and arguments of a book. It also helped scholars to reflect on their published works to communicate them to non-specialists.
Many listeners expressed their gratitude on social media for understanding some of the books in a new light or in a more productive way. It prompted others to add the featured books to their course syllabus to encourage the undergraduate students to learn by listening. The feedback and the increasing support that the IOW series received continued growing. It strengthened the case for launching a permanent podcast channel on the NBN platform. That meant greater visibility for the field and a digital home for the growing scholarly interest in the IOW. This is not to say that the canceled workshops and conferences can be substituted with a podcast. Nonetheless, a podcast can serve as a focused and intimate avenue that animate scholarship and intimate specialized knowledge.
The IOW podcast experience in overcoming the pandemic's challenges by employing productive digital tools to establish alternative academic platforms proved effective in building communities of knowledge production and sharing. Such tools can be instrumentalized to connect with fellow students and scholars to foster inclusive conversations and promote mutual awareness of ongoing scholarship. Such an experiment of public education can be surely replicated and drawn on for other academic fields and thematic interests for launching more pedagogical, communal platforms during the current epidemiological climate and beyond.
Ahmed Yaqoub AlMaazmi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University. He tweets @Ahmed_Yaqoub