SpokenWeb: screenshot from spokenweb.ca

SpokenWeb is a community of researchers that work to preserve sonic and audio recordings of Canadian literature and literary history. Within the SpokenWeb team are distinguished members of the UBC and UBCO community. A crucial part of SpokenWeb’s UBCO branch is the AMP Lab, which is directed by Dr. Karis Shearer and is home to projects that engage humanities work in digital contexts. In anticipation of the release of The SpokenWeb Podcast’s third season beginning October 4th, The Phoenix was honoured to have the opportunity to speak with two esteemed SpokenWeb team members. 

Dr. Katherine McLeod of Concordia University leads the ShortCuts mini-episodes that follow each full episode on the SpokenWeb Podcast feed. Judith Burr, an MA student in Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies under the Digital Arts and Humanities theme at UBCO, became involved in SpokenWeb as the podcast’s project manager and supervising producer through her position as a research assistant with the AMP Lab. Together, we discussed what the podcast does, its importance to literary history, its intrigue for listeners, and how it can change the future of studying literature, arts, and culture.

What is SpokenWeb and The SpokenWeb Podcast?

SpokenWeb is a team of dedicated researchers working to discover and preserve sonic artifacts that have recorded crucial moments of past literary events and provide a space for them in the present. They have created The SpokenWeb Podcast which offers a new way to examine literature and literary history through archived audio and sonic recordings. Free from the restrictions of visual texts, the podcast invites listeners to experience and understand Canadian literature and its history in a more engaging and personal way.

“It is about making things with archival records of what literature sounds like,” Dr. Katherine McLeod stated during our interview. “We can do research on the sound of literature but then the podcast is a way of really mobilizing and actively making sound.”

As the podcast project manager and a producer, Judith Burr’s job is to make sure the podcast gets out every month and includes much behind-the-scenes work. “We’ve had students from different universities produce episodes. We’ve had professors who are working on different kinds of research related to history, literature, and sound studies produce episodes,” Burr explained, “so my job is to help them turn their ideas into a podcast episode.”

Dr. McLeod, whose research has been focusing on Canadian women poets and radio archives, said “the Podcast task force was kind of a natural fit to be involved with. With the task force, we started out by imagining quite broadly what the podcast could sound like.”

She went on to explain, “Something I would say also really defines SpokenWeb is that it's a project that is invested in practices of listening and it is a project that is exploring what it means to listen to literary archives. As a project that is exploring these methods conceptually and thinking about what is listening–what does it mean to listen to a literary recording, what can we learn from that that we can’t learn from the printed page–it’s important to then practice that listening through the podcast and to create different kinds of listening experiences with these literary audio materials.”

“The Podcast is a great way to do that because podcasts bring a new layer of accessibility to scholarly research,” Burr explained. “Podcasts can travel with you through your busy day. Also, listening to a podcast can leave you with a different quality and feeling than reading something of the same topic.”

ShortCuts, mini-episodes present throughout the podcast feed, take deep-dives into brief audio clips. These episodes act as what Dr. McLeod described as “possibly the most moveable and accessible format of the podcast.”

Regarding her work in ShortCuts, Dr. McLeod stated, “I really liked the idea of going from being someone who researches radio and broadcasting to actually making something. Making the first ShortCuts was a chance to really do something practice-based, make audio, and to think of what that audio could then be doing as literary criticism.”

Who is SpokenWeb and The SpokenWeb Podcast for?

As a podcast that primarily examines the connections between and importance of literature and sound, Dr. McLeod and Burr revealed that the podcast can also do so much more. Even within specific topics of Canadian literature and literary history, The SpokenWeb Podcast provides insight and opportunities to explore any and all kinds of research, making it an ideal resource for all learners.

“The podcast is a way of bringing in a performative side to the research and reconnecting archives with audiences,” Dr. McLeod explained. “As the archives of SpokenWeb become more expansive, that also expands the kinds of research that can be done with those archives as they reach more communities and tap into new types of scholarly and creative practices.”

Connecting her studies to her role in the SpokenWeb community, Burr added, “This research assistantship with The SpokenWeb Podcast is a defining part of my learning experience. I am definitely taking what I am learning about the Digital Arts and Humanities and about scholarly podcasting and bringing it back to my thesis research.”

Currently working on her thesis about the history of wildfires in the Okanagan, Burr shared how SpokenWeb has aided both in her research and presentation of findings. “I’ve studied wildfires in the past but [SpokenWeb] has allowed me to kind of learn about what is going on in the AMP Lab and practice the production side of things in The SpokenWeb Podcast and then apply those skills to this question of ‘how do I do research that I think is important to our understanding of the environment–and specifically living with wildfire–and then communicate and do the research more effectively using digital tools?’”

“My thesis work as a Masters student is also going to be in the form of a podcast because I see the power of audio storytelling for communicating important research ideas,” Burr revealed. “And I do think, by producing this research as an audio story, it makes the research different. It grounds me in the actual sounds of historical clips, of people talking about wildfires in the past, of actually having to interview someone today and record their memories and knowledge of wildfire history. It also puts all that research that I am doing into a platform that is easier to share with more people.”

How does The SpokenWeb Podcast change how we view literature, arts, culture, and research?

Often, literature and research are restricted to being taught and presented using visual text and print. While they can provide crucial understandings of literature and are considered essential in many areas of research, the limitations to visual text can make literature and research inaccessible to many. By utilizing an auditory medium, The SpokenWeb Podcast offers a fresh alternative to examining and understanding scholarly works that is more accessible in terms of portability, resources, and learning.

“Literary audio recordings remind us that there are so many ways of learning and that audio is central for our learning. The colonial structures around printed texts are so limited in terms of privileging [visual texts] as the only way of learning.” Dr. McLeod stated. “Sound is a moving medium [that] also has this real connection to place and identity.”

Similarly, Burr asserted that “we don’t have to stick only to these particular and traditional forms of academic publishing.”

“There is something so emotional and special about actually hearing voices from the past and I think–especially in the context of literary reading–sometimes you understand the work in a completely different way once you hear the author read it,” Burr expressed. “As I’ve engaged with this podcast, I’m also really wowed by the way that those audio recordings totally influence the way that we understand literary works themselves.”

“I think giving people pieces of history you can actually hear promotes this emotional engagement with literature and the past that sometimes doesn’t jump out the same way with a written paper,” Burr went on to add, “and we can really learn things about particular writers or about particular moments in history from having these recordings.”

“Audio recordings of literature let us hear the full resonance of the work,” Dr. McLeod affirmed. “They let us experience literature as sound, as a moving and affective experience. Audio recordings of literature allow for literature to be a very multi-sensory experience and they are also ways in which literature isn’t only bound to the printed page and all of the hierarchical structures that define and gate-keep around what gets published or what doesn’t.”

She explained, “It is part of a change. Listening itself isn’t going to change the world but I think the way that we go about our listening can change it. The role that the podcast plays in that is to model new modes of listening and to explore what listening can do by making connections to our present world.” 

The SpokenWeb Podcast’s first episode of the third season will be released October 4th. You can listen to the trailer here and access all of the podcast episodes and mini-episodes here.