Podcasting as Feminist Method: Publishing @ SFU Prof Hannah McGregor Speaks to Scholarly Communication and Research at Green College, UBC

On October 3, 2019, Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University, Hannah McGregor spoke on how podcasting as a scholarly method opens out new possibilities not just for the reach of our work but for the nature of the work itself, especially in its emergence as a feminist method. Through its facilitation of scholarly accountability to multiple publics, its challenges to institutionality, as well as the space it builds for grappling with ideas without arriving at conclusions, podcasting may help to shift the ecosystem of scholarship such that new forms of scholarly thinking are made possible. This talk took place at Green College, UBC.

Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University, where her research focuses on podcasting as scholarly communication, systemic barriers to access in the Canadian publishing industry, and magazines as middlebrow media. She is the co-creator of Witch, Please, a feminist podcast on the Harry Potter world, and the creator of the weekly podcast Secret Feminist Agenda, which is currently undergoing an experimental peer review process with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. She is also the co-editor of the book Refuse: CanLit in Ruins (Book*hug 2018).

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“This is not quite a talk about podcasts”

McGregor speaks to how her early adoption of podcasting was something she at first considered “rash”, “silly”, and even in the ballpark of “career suicide”, but later came to view as a new form of scholarship.

Like many radical breakthroughs, it was discontentment that led Hannah McGregor into uncharted territory in 2015, while she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta. “Every three years or so I become dissatisfied with the structural limitations of the work I can do from within the university: whether it’s the mundane abuses of power that shape many student-supervisor relationships, the hypocrisy of critics who build a career on theorizing violence while unthinkingly perpetuating it in their own actions, or the conservative limitations on how we can think and write and teach, academia has been, for me, a series of disappointments.”

It was this dissatisfaction with academia that led McGregor to do something “rash”. She started a podcast. Witch, Please was, in her words, “a very silly podcast about Harry Potter. I mean very silly, like owl-hoot sound effects silly, like extensive jokes about pegging silly, like drinking a bottle of wine and laughing ourselves sick and editing out exactly zero of our own laughter silly.” And yet, something magical happened. As McGregor put it, “little did I know, podcasting would be a departure point for me in rethinking my relationship to the university and to my own work as a scholar.”

McGregor’s partner in crime through all this is Marcelle Kosman, also a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta. Their rough takes on the material were as improvisational as they were collaborative. McGregor recounts that during recording, having to share a single microphone passed back and forth was “an accidentally feminist technique that forced us to give one another space and time to really articulate a thought.” 

Looking back at Witch, Please, McGregor recognizes how what she and Kosman did for fun was in fact feminist co-creation of knowledge—not because of the subject matter per say, but because of the lessons it taught them that traditional academic institutions did not. “The space of the podcast let me first experiment in, and gradually learn to articulate something about what I think of as a fundamentally feminist research method: research not just as and through creation, but research as and through collaborative co-creation with other feminist thinkers. “

Hannah McGregor, Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University (left), John Paul (JP) Catungal, Assistant Professor, Social Justice Institute (right)

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“When I begin to expand this thinking about women’s voices from the literal to the metaphorical, the way that feminist and queer communities for example share information, it quickly becomes clear that our modes of expression are invalidated at every turn.” 

McGregor speaks to the prevalence of misogyny in the media, down to the policing of how women speak.

McGregor relates an anecdote in which she and Kosman were invited onto CBC Edmonton AM to discuss the relatively fewer numbers of women than men in podcasting, where they argued that women are deflected from hosting podcasts in large part because of “the policing of women’s voices for things like upspeak and vocal fry,” two vocal inflections commonly attributed to women that are routinely used to demean or invalidate the content of their speech. The host of the show responded to their critique, or as McGregor quips “one might call it mansplaining were one so inclined”, that vocal fry is bad for your voice. McGregor summarizes, “So thanks, I guess, for making our point for us?”

Referencing the work of writer and podcast host Ann Friedman in her book Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?, McGregor exposes the “impossible bind” women are placed in when asked to occupy a position that shows more confidence than they might even have, while also refraining from an “unbecoming” display of confidence that might threaten the status quo. “If we speak too loudly we’re being bitches, but if we speak too quietly we lack authority. If we share information via a whisper network we’re being sneaky but if we state harm publicly we’re sued for defamation. It’s almost like every way that minoritized communities find to articulate ourselves is wrong.”

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“I wanted to find out how it felt for me to really do my scholarship and my feminism out loud and in public.”

McGregor’s not-so-secret feminist agenda is to model a less violent way of speaking that includes listening and accountability.

Despite being almost entirely out of production, Witch, Please has around 20,000 subscribers, and many of these committed fans supported McGregor’s next project, Secret Feminist Agenda. McGregor muses on the reception of her work, “It often surprises me when listeners to Secret Feminist Agenda refer to it as a positive or optimistic podcast; I talk about white supremacy, anti-Indigenous and anti-Black violence, rape culture, and mental health crises, to name a few recurring topics. It has taken me a while to realize that the positivity people are naming is this refusal of the agonistic approach, in which I prove how smart I am by tearing down the ideas of others in a mad scramble to be the most unique, the most critical thinker. It has taken me years of this work to realize that what feels radical about it, for me, is the way it models a different way to do scholarly thinking.”

With accountability and sustainability top of mind, McGregor has set an intention to practice a form of scholarship capable of listening and learning “from what listeners had to say, and adapted, and apologized, and changed without trying to erase the past.” She does so through interviews with feminists of all stripes, because as she poignantly reminds us, “spending too much time away from other feminists can mess with us; we start to second guess gendered micro-aggressions, worry we’re reading too much into an interaction, wonder if maybe we’re just being too emotional. But thinking along with other feminists also pushes me to think differently, transformatively.” 

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“I am publicly, vulnerably, doing scholarship wrong. Or at least I’m trying.”

McGregor unpacks the power of language, the privilege of academia, and the complexity of conversation.

In a moment of reflection, McGregor admits that right now she has it pretty good. “I have a job as an Assistant Professor in a department of Publishing, where my colleagues are excited and enthusiastic about non-traditional scholarship. And I get to make podcasts, and think about making podcasts, as a central part of my work. And that publicness and vulnerability and doing-it-wrongness that characterized my first forays into podcasting has become my scholarly identity.”

With this power comes responsibility, to her listeners and to feminist scholarship, a charge McGregor does not take lightly. Recognizing the importance of minimizing harm in the space of public speaking, McGregor acknowledges that “Language hurts people. We learn to inure ourselves to it…but we who are used to this harm are desperate, too, for spaces where we can let our guard down and trust that we will be unharmed, or if harmed, that harm will be acknowledged, nurtured.”

For McGregor this means a breaking open of the space for “conversations that are built collectively, accountably, polyphonically, don’t end. They continue to build and become more complex over time, and inevitably they repeat as new people enter the conversation.” In this newly created space, the task ahead now is to populate the conversation with as many diverse thinkers and speakers as possible, and this means it is up to us.

If you’re interested in getting the kind of education in publishing that allows for ground-breaking, irreverent, uncompromising commitment to your values, and amplifying marginalized voices, consider applying for the Master of Publishing Program at Simon Fraser University before February 1st. 

Hannah McGregor, Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University (left), John Paul (JP) Catungal, Assistant Professor, Social Justice Institute (right)