Despite the public nature of Canadian universities, knowledge in the academy is often inaccessible to institutional “outsiders.” Paywalls and jargon make peer-reviewed research – the academy’s major contribution – especially difficult to access. These barriers are especially steep for racialized, Indigenous and LGBTQIA2S+ folks, who remain marginalized in academic spaces.
Many academic discussions touch on timely political issues – including free expression, populism, human rights and decolonization – that are arousing the attention of the Canadian public. By limiting outsider access to these debates, academic institutions and publishers act as gatekeepers of knowledge at the expense of community-building and pluralistic dialogue.
It is critical for academics to mobilize knowledge through publicly accessible forms that can foster, not inhibit, strong links between academics and the Canadian public.
As junior scholars of politics, we argue that the academic community needs to embrace diverse open access media forms – like podcasting – to mobilize knowledge outside of the academy and create healthier and more informed public discourse. Over the last decade, podcasts have become one of the most widely consumed media sources for obvious reasons: they’re accessible, entertaining and convenient. They’re also relatively easy to produce, allowing diverse creators to connect with large audiences. Academics are realizing this and increasingly use the medium to mobilize knowledge.
We’re two of these academics. In conjunction with the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta, we recently developed a collaborative podcast miniseries titled Extremism, Polarization, and the Future of Democracy. The series connects with advocates, filmmakers, journalists and scholars to understand the twin phenomena of political extremism and polarization. To help us with our interviews, we drew from questions supplied by undergraduate students in a third-year politics course on the topic at Queen’s University.
In turn, we compiled their questions to create interview scripts for our guests, whose work was featured in the course. This process made students collaborators in knowledge mobilization, sharpening their analytical skills and recognizing their contributions in a format accessible to those outside the academy. We now have a valuable teaching resource for subsequent iterations of the course and a publicly accessible form of knowledge that bridges academic and non-academic worlds.
Mobilizing knowledge through media like podcasts has benefits for public and academic discourse. A persistent critique of new media is that it bypasses traditional information flows like journalism and can result in lower quality information. Scholars are widely perceived as trustworthy sources of information and can therefore make important contributions to an increasingly mediated public discourse. Podcasts can also provide important forms of accountability for traditional media sources, who sometimes frame issues from a specific, partial perspective. As scholars, we therefore have a unique opportunity to inject critical perspectives into our public discourse.
Podcasting as a form of knowledge mobilization can also combat academic gatekeeping by breaking down existing hierarchies of what counts as legitimate research contributions. Academic institutions conventionally distinguish between “academic” and “public” scholarship, with the latter presumed less rigorous due to its lack of peer review. Nonetheless, the content of public scholarship is often equally substantive and it reaches a much wider audience than a peer reviewed journal article. Embracing podcasting as a legitimate research contribution is at least one way to combat disciplinary hierarchies that privilege certain modes of inquiry over others. It also challenges the academic community as a whole to ask critical questions about who we’re producing knowledge for and for what purpose.
Redefining legitimate research can also alleviate the incredible pressure on graduate students and junior scholars, who are expected to publish frequently to secure a job in today’s highly competitive market. This publish-or-perish mentality emphasizes quantity of publications over quality, creating incentives to cut corners and, in extreme cases, fabricate data. Podcasts can be peer-reviewed: Wilfrid Laurier University Press recently piloted a SSHRC-funded peer-review project on three seasons of Secret Feminist Agenda, hosted by Hannah McGregor, an associate professor of publishing at Simon Fraser University.
We’re well aware that peer-reviewed journal articles are the currency of our world. But the academy should still recognize a broader range of contributions — especially when they foster dialogue that serves the public good. We benefit too: when we create knowledge that’s relevant and accessible, we expand our communication skills and make our research more impactful as well as engage with more diverse viewpoints. Far from diluting the scholarly mission, open-access knowledge mobilization satisfies our main objective: building community and pluralistic dialogue to address the central challenges of today’s world.
Kaitie Jourdeuil is a PhD candidate in the department of political studies at Queen’s University. Dax D’Orazio is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of political studies at Queen’s.