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Cambridge American History Seminar Podcast

Lewis Defrates

I started the Cambridge American History Seminar Podcast this October as part of my work as the Graduate Digital Communications Co-Ordinator for the American History subject group, but I’ve always been interested in outreach and public engagement. The podcast has been a useful way to reach a wider academic audience of Americanists and historians, as well as segments of an interested general public.

Image of logo for Podcast pieceThe most fortunate circumstance for me is that the Cambridge American History Seminar brings in academics who are at the top of their field from around the UK and the United States, and as the speaker is already in town for the seminar are generally more than happy to sit down with me for a brief conversation. Unlike most interview podcasts, the podcast focuses largely on the paper that the presenter is giving at the seminar, beginning with a brief synopsis of the paper itself before a conversation about themes or issues discussed in the paper, their significance and the relationship with their wider work. As the seminar can either take the form of a pre-circulated paper or a conventional presentation, I generally find that the former format is more conducive to conversation as I have a better idea about the work prior to beginning the interview. Nevertheless, interviewing academics about their work as I learn about it myself in real-time has been a useful exercise in helping me think on my feet and engage with research on its own terms!

The podcast is a useful tool in allowing academics to discuss their current and ongoing work without necessarily disclosing more than they would feel comfortable with. The American History Seminar is a unique space in that it enables scholars to present and get feedback work in its early stages without fear of it being cited or circulated prematurely. The point of outreach is to engage people beyond this relatively closed community (the most recent episode at time of writing has over 200 plays across all mediums), so simply recording the seminar and distributing it to the general public would be unwanted, inadvisable and essentially strip the seminar of its value. Instead, presenters can discuss the new boundaries of their work for a wider audience whilst keeping some of the minutiae of their findings close to their chest until they are ready for publication.

I always end my interviews by asking my interviewees what their favourite album is, which invariably provoke a response along the lines of ‘I don’t have a favourite album, but…’ and has ended up providing an insight into the life and interests of the academic beyond their own work. I also ask about a book or article that they’ve recently read and found interesting, as I am a firm believer in the importance of history as a collaborative and mutually supportive craft.

Whilst the recording set-up is still relatively ‘lo-fi’, I’ve slowly been learning the ropes of audio production and have recently been aided by my younger brother in the creation of some new artwork. I’ll be in the United States on research for most of Lent term, and am hoping to pass off interview duties to other students in my PhD cohort during my time away. I’m looking forward to seeing how the project develops in my absence!

 ‘Cambridge American History Podcast’ is available on Apple Podcasts and most other podcast carriers, and directly at https://soundcloud.com/cahspodcast