“Only nerds would want more episodes about print culture” tweets the scholarly duo behind the podcast Witch, Please.
Hannah McGregor (Ph.D., Literary/Theatre Studies, University of Guelph) is one half of that duo, and Publishing’s newest Assistant Professor.
Blending public scholarship and cultural phenomena is the magic that makes the fortnightly podcast so beloved by its 3500 listeners. To Hannah’s surprise, it also proved to be an asset in the job market, particularly with the publishing program at SFU.
“Marcelle [Kosman] (Hannah’s partner in the podcast) and I were aware, when we started the podcast, that it was a potentially risky move. We’re proud of the work we do, but it also doesn’t always look or sound ‘professional.’ We get drunk, we make dirty jokes, we cry about an owl dying. We knew that certain kinds of university departments would look at Witch, Please and dismiss us as serious academics. But we also came to the decision that those kinds of institutions would probably not be the best fits for us, anyway. The Publishing program values the things I value: experimenting with new forms, building things, public engagement, and of course pushing against the limitations of what constitutes scholarly production.”
Pulling examples from the Harry Potter series, the podcast explores issues such as print culture and propaganda (through the evolution of simplistic narrative into the emergence of critical thinking). By following, for example, the texts Hermione chooses to read and her realization of the ways words can be used to advance the ends of particular political forces in the wizarding world, the listener becomes more aware of the critical thinking process.
Does that mean students can expect a new course on Harry Potter? Maybe.
“There’s been some talk of a possible podcasting course — I would love to (re) introduce students to the medium of podcasting through the framework of media studies, while also teaching them how to produce their own podcasts. I wonder what a Harry Potter publishing course would look like… perhaps an analysis of the book’s publication and circulation history, alongside engagement with its vibrant fan production community (since, as we all know, fan production is itself a kind of publishing). Oh, and a whole unit studying the rise and fall of Pottermore and what that can teach us about authors attempting to seize control over fan communities.”
Hannah is also quite aware of, and involved with, the power of the public space; the enormous power of social platforms for sometimes unheard voices, as well as the virtual power of anonymity.
“On a historical scale, the digital space is still a very new kind of public space, and I think we’re all (users, creators, scholars) trying to figure out how to navigate it. And one of the most troubling dimensions of digital space has been the enormous amount of abuse and violence that women, trans people, queer people, people of colour, and other minoritized groups have faced when trying to carve out a chunk of that space for themselves. At the same time, digital publishing platforms and social media have turned into radical tools of community organization and alternative storytelling. I’m interested in how women navigate this space — both its risks and rewards — and how we might teach students to interact with digital tools and platforms in more conscious and critical ways.”
Most recently, Hannah was a full time instructor in English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, but knew, that with her background in Canadian Literature and the digital humanities, coupled with her drive to explore digital publics, there were likely many more academic niches to explore.
“I’ve always fit uneasily into a certain version of English studies. I’ve always been drawn to the kinds of academic work that raise eyebrows — that’s what got me interested in digital humanities, and it’s what drew me to making an academic(ish) podcast. Publishing, with its fundamental interdisciplinarity and interests in print culture, the publishing industry, book design, and alternative methods of scholarly communication, to name a few, feels a little bit like the academic home I never knew I was missing.”
Her belief that theory and practice are essential pedagogical partners aligns perfectly with Publishing’s unwritten mandate that courses be a blend of hands-on practical and academic theory.
Courses such as PUB 101, in which students critically assess and explore digital publics, while building their own online identities exemplify Hannah’s pedagogical underpinnings.
“From my perspective, the most urgent task of postsecondary education in this new digital landscape of publishing is not only to teach students to use the tools and technologies and platforms, but to engage with them critically. It’s one thing to learn how to make a podcast — to study examples, experiment with different audio editors, learn how to layer music and voice and sound effects — and it’s another thing to historicize podcasts within several centuries of serial media, to ask how their entry into today’s media ecology is impacting other media like radio and audio books, to politicize the question of who produces and consumes this new medium and why. If you want to be someone who can not only work in but also meaningfully impact these emergent digital publics, you need to marry theoretical and practical understandings of how they work.
“The most important part of teaching for me is conversation: the classroom is a space where students are actively engaged in conversation with me, with each other, with the things we’re studying. Prioritizing conversation can also help students to become more comfortable with collaborating, first with each other but ideally with people outside the classroom as well. In the past I’ve incorporate community service-learning into my courses, through which students learn that what we’re doing in the class is actually relevant to the rest of the world. Another major tenet of my teaching philosophy is creation. The essay has its place, but I much prefer to incorporate non-traditional forms of research-creation into my classes; I’ve had students build websites, write and print choose-your-own adventure books, design interactive fictions, and create online exhibits. Next up: podcasts, which beautifully incorporate all three of these tenets—conversation, collaboration, and creation!”
A natural collaborator, as her work as Director of the Modern Magazines Project Canada demonstrates, Hannah is eager to build collaborative relationships — with colleagues, across departments and faculties, and with communities outside the university.
When not immersed in her love of teaching and research, Hannah sings women’s barbershop and already has her eye on a new chorus in town.
And while students may not be engaging in much singing, they should expect “a lot of jokes, a lot of Harry Potter references, and a valiant ongoing attempt to teach critical theory through memes. (Ahem: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-t0tbC95sUH4/UJGn4eAdP6I/AAAAAAAAAC4/dQ9MpoTheY4/s1600/althusser.jpg). They should also expect someone who is really, really excited about their ideas and their passions, who is committed to making the classroom a safe and inclusive space for everyone, and who likes to list things in threes.”