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Academics, the Public, and Podcasts: Nature’s Past Four Years On

Since late 2008, I have been the producer and host of Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast.

Over the course of its first four years, Nature’s Past has featured interviews and conversations with numerous environmental historians, including faculty and graduate students from across Canada and around the world. Its audience includes scholarly researchers, teachers, policy makers, and just about anyone remotely interested in the field of Canadian environmental history. And, as it turns out, there has been a great deal of interest in the field. With more than one hundred monthly subscribers, the podcast has been downloaded more 20,000 times by a global audience of listeners from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, China, Brazil, Sweden, New Zealand, and many other countries.

After thirty-four episodes, I have been as surprised by the reach of the podcast as I have by its longevity. When I began Nature’s Past, I envisioned it as a short-term experiment with a new medium for scholarly communication. Inspired by the work of Jan Oosthoek on theExploring Environmental History podcast, I wanted to see if there was an appetite in the scholarly community for an episodic podcast that profiled new work in the field of Canadian environmental history. Prior to the late 2000s, academic podcasts were mostly limited to recorded course lectures. They were primarily a tool for teaching that replicated older practices of tape recording and added a new digital distribution model. Few of these early initiatives included automated subscription and fewer still included content recorded exclusively for digital distribution. Oosthoek”s podcast and the work of other early digital historians suggested that an episodic format with interviews and round table discussions about new research might offer something new to scholarly researchers and broader public audiences.

After the strong positive response to the first six episodes of Nature’s Past, I decided to continue the series and its audience continued to grow. As such, the podcast has charted some of the major shifts, trends, and changes in the field of environmental history in Canada. Many of the graduate students who were interviewed in early episodes have gone on to publish books and take up postdoctoral fellowships and faculty positions. Several faculty members have published new books in Canadian environmental history, including the numerous books in the UBC Press Nature History Society series. When we published our special episode on teaching environmental history in 2009, there were only three Canadian environmental history textbooks. Just this year, Neil Forkey and Laurel MacDowell published two new textbooks for the field. And, of course, the podcast has witnessed the growth and development of the Network in Canadian History and Environment, featuring an archive of interviews with several NiCHE organizers about projects, workshops, and other events.

So what began as a short-term experiment has now grown into a relatively well-established new form of scholarly communication that builds upon existing scholarly publications. Podcasts have not replaced books and journal articles. They have added to the diverse media that historians now use to communicate research findings and disseminate knowledge about the past. I have found that podcasts are especially effective at:

  1. Promoting new research and publications.
  2. Exploring current issues and topics in a given field through open conversations with experts.
  3. Reviewing new books.
  4. Reaching non-academic audiences.
  5. Synthesizing historical research to provide context for contemporary environmental issues.

It was these last two points that led us to expand Nature’s Past this year, with the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Public Outreach Grant program. Along with two new research assistants (Stacy Nation-Knapper and Andrew Watson), we have attempted to use the medium of podcasting to apply environmental history research findings to contemporary environmental issues. Our special series, “Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues,” attempts to provide historical context for a number of different environmental issues by drawing from the expertise of historical researchers. Because the podcast has proven so effective at reaching audiences outside of academia, it was a perfect fit for this grant program. The round table and interview formats of Nature’s Past provide an excellent platform for historians to convey their research findings to communities outside of the university.

For scholarly purposes, the past four years of Nature’s Past has provided some insight into the growth and potential of digital scholarly communication. Podcast, blogs, and other digital media should not be viewed simply as potential replacements for traditional forms of scholarly communication, such as books and journal articles. Digital media offers scholarly researchers the opportunity to build upon existing publishing formats and create something new. Digital technologies should be used to grow scholarly output, forging paths toward the future rather than replicating methods of the past.

We are looking forward to publishing the final three episodes of the special series of the podcast and continuing the regular Nature’s Past series into the foreseeable future. And, of course, I could always use feedback and comments, so please take a moment to fill out our ongoing listener survey here.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com

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Sean Kheraj is an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He researches and teaches in the areas of environmental and Canadian history. In addition to being a co-editor of niche-canada.org, he is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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