Dieter Declercq reflects on the “semi-formal” spaces of academic podcasts and live webinars which present new possibilities for connection between those working in the medical humanities.
We recently concluded the second season of our webinar-podcast series, Conversations about Arts, Humanities and Health – a resource by researchers for researchers in health and medical humanities. We regularly host live webinars with a central guest to talk about their work at the intersection of humanities and medicine. At these live events, audience members can ask guests for insights about best practice, challenges, and pitfalls. Afterwards we disseminate the conversations as podcasts, alongside summaries with key takeaway messages.
We developed this format during the pandemic as an alternative to formal academic formats like keynote talks or publications. Our hope was to capture those useful insights that people often share in informal conversations at conference dinners or during coffee breaks. That’s typically when we connect with others around the stories behind research – when we can give voice to hope, doubt and ambiguity. What we ended up with is “a semi-formal space”, which fosters spontaneous conversations, but legitimatise them as scholarly activity.
Conversations about Arts, Humanities and Health is hosted by Dr Dieter Declercq and Prof Ian Sabroe. Dieter lectures in Film and Media Studies, while Ian is a Consultant in Respiratory Medicine and Honorary Professor of Medical Humanities. Our paths crossed at the 2020 British Society of Aesthetics Conference: Art, Aesthetics and the Medical and Health Humanities – an interdisciplinary event that brought together academics, health professionals and artists. We wanted to continue conversations to stimulate meaningful dialogue and connection between humanities and medicine. So, we teamed up with Dr David Brown, who produces the podcasts and manages the webinar series.
So far, we have hosted conversations with Prof Nicola Shaughnessy, Dr Esther L Jones, Dr Chris Millard, Dr Lauren Barron, Prof David Magnus & Dr Alyssa Burgart, Prof Rita Charon, Prof Paul Crawford and Dr Keisha Ray, Prof Margarita Saona and Dr Sayantani DasGupta Our upcoming guests for Season 3 include Dr Matt Jennings & Sue Foster from Health Action Training (19/01/2022) and Prof Angela Woods (23/03/2022).
In our conversations, we try to find a common language for researchers who work in the interdisciplinary space between arts & humanities and medicine & healthcare. We also give voice to common experiences like the infamous “imposter syndrome”. We address power imbalances within and between humanities and medicine. And we talk about career opportunities and challenges for interdisciplinary researchers. The result of these conversations is a collection of hopefully useful resources for other researchers who are trying to find their way in the field of medical and health humanities.
An alternative to academic formats
We originally considered hosting an international seminar series to foster meaningful dialogue and connection between humanities and medicine. This was likely going to involve international networks and travel to establish relationships for collaborative projects. And then the pandemic happened – so we had to explore alternative formats. We quickly saw the limits of stimulating an interactive dialogue through an online version of the traditional academic format – where a speaker delivers a talk, followed by a Q&A.
The traditional Q&A format is certainly important in the development research. It’s invaluable as a forum for researchers to get feedback from peers. Yet, it also stimulates a kind of conversation which we could call “verbal ping-pong”: someone pings a question to an invited speaker, who pongs it back. The speaker might occasionally return a follow-up question if the chair allows for it, but will usually starts a new game of back and forth with another attendee. This format is not designed for a free-flowing dialogue where interlocutors build on each other’s ideas. Q&As are also prone to being hijacked by attendees who want to deliver a mini-monologue about their own research – which quickly gets awkward for all involved.
This is why we did not want to recreate a series of keynote talks online. In fact, we set out to capture those informal conversations which usually happen around formal talks and presentations – at conference dinners or during coffee breaks. These are often the moments when PhD students can pick up career advice from keynote speakers, or when researchers are able to share worries or concerns. Although these personal stories behind the research are a crucial part of being a researcher, they are typically excluded from formalized research outputs. It’s not very common to add an addendum to a journal article which acknowledges, “by the way, I’m not entirely sure if I belong in this discipline, or if I got that argument in section 3 entirely right.”
Yet, for most researchers, wrestling with such issues is part and parcel of doing research – especially when they move beyond disciplinary boundaries. We therefore aim to create a space where researchers in health and medical humanities can voice these personal stories and hear from others with similar experiences – especially leading figures. We want to let people know that they are not alone when they worry about feeling like an “imposter”. Sharing these stories can be empowering, especially for early career researchers.
A podcast with a live audience
We wanted to develop a more interactive and less formal alternative to the traditional research talk. This alternative also had to work around the restrictions of the pandemic. So, we settled for a podcast with a live audience. Conversation is native to the podcast format. Much like podcasts hosts, we can curate the direction of the conversation. For example, we have pre-meets with our guests to decide on conversational topics, which forms the basis of a short script. We invariably abandon the order of the script five minutes into the live event, but it at least gives us an overview of topics we definitely want to cover!
There is nonetheless an important difference between our events and a typical podcast. Instead of a pre-recorded, curated chat with just ourselves and a central guest, we wanted other participants to contribute to the direction of the conversation. We therefore initially run a live webinar, which is later produced as a podcast. The webinar format gives people the opportunity to help shape the conversation by asking questions. It also gives us, as hosts, the freedom to weave those questions into the conversation as we see fit.
This format is not perfect. We do not always have the time to address all questions. Sometimes, we may not fully understand the drift of a particular question. And sometimes engaging with a tangential question would derail the ongoing conversation. Our role is therefore different than chairing a Q&A at a keynote talk. A chair allows audience members to put questions to the speaker in the order in which they arise. By contrast, we often end up changing the order of the questions submitted by the audience, we always frame them in our own words, and sometimes we cannot fit them into the conversation.
We are therefore in an uncomfortable position of power. There is no denying that we gatekeep which perspectives get heard on the podcast. We do so not just by moderating webinar questions, but also through selecting and inviting our guests. We’d like to think that we navigate these processes conscientiously. However, there are more democratic formats out there to facilitate a truly open discussion – like a town hall style meeting, or an online discussion site.
Of course, every format has its limitations. A completely open discussion will not have the same curated direction of a podcast conversation; it is hard to tell in advance where it might go. And a live webinar which takes every question from the audience in order and puts them to a central guest is simply an online Q&A session. That format does not facilitate a conversation where people build on each other’s perspectives. Thus, we settled on our format of a podcast with a live audience – with both its pros and cons.
A semi-formal space
One upshot of our chosen format is also that it creates a “semi-formal space”. This was by design; from the start our intention was to create an alternative to formal academic formats like keynote talks or journal articles. These formats often do not capture those personal dimensions of research we share by the water cooler at a conference. Yet, water cooler conversations are also only just that – an informal conversation which is lost in the ether afterwards.
However, this conversation will eventually fade to a memory. It may be of practical guidance or emotional support to an individual researcher. Yet, it won’t help them to justify their interdisciplinary research agenda to a Director of Research at their university. In this context, referring to a conference dinner conversation won’t carry much weight. The same conversation is also of little use to the researcher who just happened to sit at the wrong side of the table at the conference dinner – or who did not have access to the conference in the first place.
This is why recording and archiving our conversations is crucial to our project, so they are freely accessible to everyone. Furthermore, to lend such a project legitimacy, a certain level of formality is important. We’re not just running this from our shed! We generously receive financial support from The Churchill Fellowship and the University of Kent – which hosts Conversations about Arts, Humanities and Health on their website.
Our space is therefore semi-formal. The events take place within a formal, institutional context but they aim to capture the informal nature of water cooler conversations. The formality of this framework is bound up with the ambiguities of power and gatekeeping we already identified. Yet, it also affords us traditional academic legitimation – something which we need for these stories behind the research to be taken seriously.
Dr Dieter Declercq (@dieter_declercq) is Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kent. His transdisciplinary research is situated at the intersection of media studies, health humanities and philosophical aesthetics.
Prof Ian Sabroe is Consultant in Respiratory Medicine (Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust) and Honorary Professor of Medical Humanities (University of Sheffield). His work in medical humanities explores clinician and patient experience.
Dr David W R Brown (@DavidBrown_100) is an academic based in Film and Media Studies, currently lecturing at King’s College London and the University of Kent. His research aims to conceptualise how viewers engage emotionally and cognitively with screen narratives. Put simply, David is interested in how the stories told by film and television make us think and feel.