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I've recently become enamored with listening to podcasts, and one of them is co-hosted by my old friend, B.R. Cohen. I asked him and his partner in crime, Simon Tonev, to write about what it means to podcast as part of an academic community. - JW

There are thousands of podcasts. Some are based in academia. We thought it was a good idea to add to the pile. You could too.

Various Breads and Butters began with the time-honored two-guys-shooting-the-shit model. We’ve continued under the trumped up pretense of artisanal podcasting. It’s hand-made and local, it’s transparent and healthy. It’s also not a commercial activity. This is classic public service work. We even had a fund drive, though we only accepted tote bags as donations.

We record episodes at our small liberal arts college in eastern Pennsylvania, Lafayette, where we interact with colleagues from all corners of campus to debrief on the variety of academic life. We have a student producer, because he knows how to work the equipment. We have a guest each time, because people are interesting. We have topics, but not always. What we always have is an un-air-conditioned basement studio for chatter that’s turning out to be generative and open-ended and, in that way, an extension of our work lives in academic culture. It’s an easy hour every few weeks to relax and pull on various strands of our particular community, which happens to be a college campus.

It’s true, then, that we’re looking inside higher education. But our focus is on the non-academic parts of academia. We’re trying to capture the ethos of a small liberal arts college not in what we talk about, that is, but in whom we're talking to. That means what’s unique about our fledgling effort is not the topics, because they're mostly random. One recent episode wandered from the last days of Vietnam to orthodontia to minor league baseball mascots to the various virtues of CGI in movies. Another brought us from Bryan Cranston to the opera singer Andrea Bocelli to the logic for our new invention, iced espresso. What’s unique are the guests. In just the first ten episodes, we had an artist, the vice president of campus life, a psychologist, a journalist, an IT specialist, a technology policy expert, a philosopher, and a mechanical engineer.

There’s a generous vision available that assumes people are interesting.  We subscribe to it. There’s also an ideal that many people want to hold out hope for, that a college campus is still a place for curiosity and engagement and encounters with people you may not have encountered before. We like that the guest can be a geologist or economist or admissions officer or biomolecular engineer or sculptor. We want to hear what the head of mechanical engineering thinks about Elena Ferrante or the new Franzen novel. Because she has insights on it. Who’s doing the talking is of interest, not just their expertise.

In part, we’re taking advantage of our campus’s accessible size. That’s our working theory. We live and work in such a small footprint that we can't help but get to know smart people who are smart in vastly different ways. At larger institutions, you might tend to hang out mostly with your tribe. In grad school at a large university, one of us (Cohen/Virginia Tech) spent most of his time with others in one corner of campus. The other (Tonev/Duke) would hang out 99% of the time with other psychologists in his program. 

It isn’t that the larger schools lack a diverse set of minds and smart people. Quite the contrary, they’re all over. But the structure was too unwieldy, the space too vast, to gain a sense of the broader interests and experiences of many others. The place was big enough that you could form your social group within your own department. Doing the opposite, being able to venture out and beyond, is by no means unique to Lafayette. Yet it may be unique to the type of small, liberal arts college we find ourselves in.

When we tell people we’re doing a podcast on campus and it’s about the variety of academic life, they often assume we’re tapping disciplinary experts to advise on the right answer to a specific problem. Some assume we’re making a point about on-line education, given the digital forum of the podcast—a radio show available on the internet. There’s certainly a bigger argument to be made about the format and the technological context of podcasting. Pushing that argument means we’d be weighing in on an on-going debate about digital lives in the modern world (at the biggest scale) and over the future of higher education (at the more focused scale of universities) that recurs here at John’s page, across IHE, and basically in all arenas of publishing.

But that heady, principled venture is beyond Various Breads and Butters, which intentionally looks to a coffee house style of chatter, not the seminar table. We’re more interested in hanging out in the room, not talking shop. So that someone might say it’s like listening in on a conversation, like you’re right there. So that once you download the show you’ll see it’s just people hashing things out with microphones on, wondering what’s up.

B.R. Cohen and Simon Tonev work at Lafayette College in Easton, PA.


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