rhetoric of podcasts, podcasts of rhetoric


One of the very best things about no longer running the composition program is having the time and mental space to get back to digital rhetoric in a more practical and compositional way. This has got me thinking, in this post, about podcasting in terms of its various rhetorical structures but mostly about the kinds of podcasts that are out there in my field.

Before I started at Buffalo, I regularly taught classes on digital production and I did a fair amount of it myself. My 2010 Enculturation article, made the year before I started being composition director, included a video. And in 2008, right before I left Cortland, I’d published an article in Kairos about teaching podcasting in my professional writing courses there. All the dropped away for me when I took on the WPA job here at Buffalo. That’s a story for a different time, but that’s part of the context for where I am now. The other part is that we’ve started a new graduate certificate in professional writing and digital communication, and this has provided some real exigency for me to get my hands dirty again with production.

You can do your own Google search or take my word for it that podcasts have become increasingly popular. A decade ago when I was teaching this stuff, we didn’t have the smartphone and mobile data networks we have now that make following podcasts so easy. (OK, here’s one quick stat from this article: these days 42 million Americans listen a podcast every week.) Personally I like podcasts. I also like audiobooks. I use them for entertainment purposes. (Mostly I listen to podcasts about soccer.)

Given this I think there are several good reasons to teach students in a professional writing curriculum how to podcast including

  1. Though they may never podcast professionally, this is a significant genre in our media ecosystem about which professional communicators need to have an understanding.
  2. Creating an audio recording is a fairly simple task, at least at a basic level. But it also opens a path for becoming more sophisticated. (I.e., minutes to learn, lifetime to mater). In this sense it’s a practical entry point into a larger field of sound rhetorics.
  3. Many students I encounter have a fairly narrow usage of media and an ever smaller experience as a composer. So podcasting becomes one in a series of experiments with media production that begins to alter our relationship to composing from one that says “I’m a writer” meaning I put words in a row on a paper to something more capacious.

My challenge though is that I always want to do the things I ask our students to do. And so I come to podcasting. The real challenges with podcasting are rhetorical and compositional. How does one create a compositional space in which one produces hopefully interesting podcasts on a semi regular basis?

So what kind of podcasting is there in rhetoric and composition? Well, this FB page tracks several of the more prominent ones. Among the active ones on that page there’s Rhetoricity produced by Eric Detweiller, Rhetorical Questions produced by Brian Amsden, Eloquentia Perfecta Ex Machina produced by the St Louis University composition program, and the CCC Podcasts produced by NCTE. I’m sure there are more. I’ve listened to a few episodes of each, and they all follow an interview format with some interviews more formal than others. So really you have someone new in each episode. That’s an entirely familiar and sensible format.

Another common format I encounter in listening to soccer podcasts is basically punditry/fan banter. There you have two or more regulars who discuss the events of the last week. I haven’t really seen that in rhetoric/composition, perhaps because we don’t really have “events” to discuss. Obviously you could discuss the rhetorical angles of current events, which would be a kind of application of rhetorical scholarship. It might be a good kind of podcast for someone to make, but that’s probably not an angle I’d want to take.

Part of the issue then is the periodicity of scholarship or at least the periodicity of the communication of scholarship. It maybe should be noted that the later is not “natural,” of course. The pattern of article publication, the length of articles, the length of conferences, the patter of the academic conference schedule: these are as much a by-product of the material affordances of mid-20th century communication technologies as they are anything to do with the qualities of the objects and practices we study or our methods. Clearly there’s some feedback in that loop and cybernetic/homeostatic impulses are at work.

So I’m wondering if it is possible to shift that periodization. I still think that blogging is an opportunity to do that, to have a more ongoing and less precious conversation about ideas and discoveries than what publishing allows (not as a replacement but as an enrichment). It never really became that. Maybe podcasting is a better medium for that. A few people get together and talk about their work, what they are reading, what’s happening in their classes. Is that interesting? I don’t know. I think almost anything has the potential to be interesting or boring depending on the audience, the situation, its production/performance/composition.

Like this blog for example… to quote Mitch Hedberg, “I played in a death metal band. People either loved us or they hated us… or they thought we were OK. “

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