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How to Build a Scholarly Community without Leaving Your Apartment!

by guest contributor Dr. Roxanne Panchasi

by guest contributor Dr. Roxanne Panchasi

This post is the second in our ‘Media of History’ forum which explores the decisions we make about the choices we make when we communicate our research. The first installment in this series was ‘Poetry as History?’:

In the spring of 2013, I was the single mother of a three-year-old kid and an Associate Professor of History. My son, certainly my most fantastic creative project up to that (and every subsequent) point, was born in 2009. Published that same year, helping me to secure tenure and promotion, my first book had taken too long to finish. During most of that time, the folder on my computer’s desktop that held its multiple chapter drafts and files of notes was named “HIDEOUS PROGENY”. Academic production and reproduction are complicated.

A few years after the book and the baby appeared, I wasn’t entirely sure how to be a scholar anymore, and especially uncertain about how to continue being a historian of modern France. For various reasons, professional travel was practically impossible, and this seemed unlikely to change at any time in the near future. No conferences, research trips to France, or anywhere else. If I’m honest, I had also lost some of my juice for research and writing: in the wake of the book’s completion; on the other side of so much anxiety about holding onto my job; and in the often wakeful, all-consuming nature of my role as the solo primary caregiver of a small child. Mine was a “one-body problem” that came with its own logistical, financial, and affective challenges. I was barely keeping my head above water on the teaching, administrative, and home fronts. My reading was confined to a tiny radius of immediate necessity and that thing called “my own writing” seemed a vague, far-off memory.

Then I had an idea that I might try something new by speaking with academic colleagues about their work. I could use Skype or some other technology to interview them at a distance, record our conversations, and share these with a wider community online. If research and writing were no longer on in the ways I had done these things before, maybe a different medium and approach could be my side door to renewed scholarly activity, and to finding again an intellectual curiosity I feared I’d lost somewhere near the corner of stress and exhaustion. The best part was that this was something I could do without having to go anywhere. I could even work from home if I wanted or needed to.

While I had always been a fan of radio, I wasn’t really a podcast listener and didn’t know where to start. I mentioned my scheme to a friend who told me about the New Books Network (NBN), a consortium of podcasts hosted by academics across the disciplines, featuring interviews with scholars about their recent books. It was exactly the kind of thing I had in mind. I pitched a new channel focused on France and the Francophone world to the NBN’s Editor-in-Chief Marshall Poe, a series that would include, but not be limited to, books by historians. I had always thought of my own work as interdisciplinary and wanted to stay open to scholars from a range of fields. I posted my first New Books in French Studies (NBFS) interview in May of 2013. I’ve done 69 more since, most of them recorded at my dining table.

Over the course of my academic career, book reviews have been a staple. As a PhD student, I collected reviews by others and attempted to write a few as well. Since grad school, I’ve consulted and assigned countless reviews in my research and teaching. I’ve agreed to write reviews only to spend too much time not writing and fretting about them. I read with trepidation the reviews written about my own book. Some authors get the chance to respond directly to reviews of their work. Academics have a lot to say about book reviews, what makes some “good” and others “terrible”. These days, a particularly damning or harsh review can become a social media event complete with denunciations, rubbernecking, and Schadenfreude—the latest installment of Book Review Review: A Review of Reviews of Books.

I appreciate the effort and care that go into the best book reviews’ sizing up of the strengths/weaknesses of a book’s arguments, significance, and contributions to a literature or field. The podcast interviews that I do for New Books in French Studies share with traditional book reviews an ambition to distill and highlight key ideas, to outline why and how a book does the work that it does. But NBFS privileges the intentions and aims of the author over an assessment or critique of the work from the position of my expertise or interests. Each podcast episode is a dynamic scholarly exchange that affords listeners an opportunity to hear the voices of both an author and a reader in direct dialog, thinking together. Interviewees have a rough sense of how things may go before we begin, but I do not provide or even write out most questions in advance, and I regularly change things up as we talk, depending on what the author says or where our conversation takes us. Offering listeners a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how and why a project took shape as it eventually did, NBFS is about backstories and a site of open interchange about what books hold and provoke for their writers, and for a spectrum of possible readers. In this way, my interviews aren’t really “mine,” and this is one of the things I like most about producing and sharing them with others.

That first interview I did back in 2013 was a conversation with historian Mary Louise Roberts about What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (University of Chicago Press, 2013). I was nervous leading up to it, and this feeling persisted during the interview itself. I think I was strangling about 14 pages of notes in my hands as we started. But something kicked in around the 15-minute mark, a feeling of genuine absorption in this opportunity to talk—really talk—with another scholar about their work, to find out more about their personal and professional background and experiences, about the ideas and questions that brought them to their project, and through the different stages toward its completion. Having learned the hard way just how much worry and trouble go into making a scholarly book happen, I’m fascinated by how others live that process, the changing shape of their research aspirations, their intended contributions, and choices along the way.

Every interview I do departs from an honest curiosity about how and why a particular book came to be, and a profound respect for the accomplishment itself. A book is no small feat in an academic life. And so often these lives are overflowing and interrupted—teaching, service, caring for children, parents, or partners, illness, financial precarity or job insecurity, gender, racial and other forms of inequity, fear, grief, and depression are just some of the many things that can slow, or even halt, the career “progress” we might have at one time imagined for ourselves. Guilt and shame can also be professional quicksand.

I am not exaggerating when I say that podcasting saved my academic life. When I started NBFS, I was stuck. Physically unable to stray far from home, but also stalled intellectually. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next, and was even less clear about how I’d complete another major project in my field given some of my constraints. Over the past several years, the books I’ve read and conversations I’ve enjoyed have nourished in me the desire for my own research and writing. They’ve also suggested more ways to follow up on that longing than I can enumerate here. Since I launched the podcast, varying the themes of episodes has been a programming goal in service of listeners. It’s also been a way of indulging my own love of grazing far and wide, picking up ideas and cues from all over the place, leaning away from a certain form of expertise, perhaps, but igniting all kinds of thinking in the process. Some flashes are caught up with the content of different projects, of course. But I am also learning all the time from the diversity and creativity of life and research trajectories, the architectures of books, the other scholars and theorists that authors are thinking with and against, the graces and skills of the writing itself.

Before New Books in French Studies, I wasn’t much of a “networker”. At a conference, I was more likely to hide out in my hotel room than to zoom around “making contacts”. Conferences and workshops can be wonderful. But scholarly meet-ups can also be expensive in a range of currencies (dollars, euros, time, carbon emissions). Not everyone can access these forms of professional dissemination and development in the same ways, and the possibilities of participating can shift dramatically at different career and life stages, from grad school to whatever comes afterwards.

Over the past six years, I have come to feel so much less isolated among my peers in French History/Studies. I host the podcast alone, but it has brought me into a community of authors, listeners, other podcasters, most from within academia, but some from a wider pubic beyond its traditional bounds. The practice of connecting with researchers and writers, many of who I’ve never met before an interview, has made me much more comfortable reaching out to colleagues in general. I have come to know so many people besides those I interview: faculty, students, and others who tune in and let me know what they think, via email, on social media, and sometimes in person. I am grateful to those I’ve spoken with, or heard from—who’ve also heard me—and excited about the interlocutors I have yet to “meet”.

Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France. Her current research focuses on the history of French nuclear weapons and testing since 1945.  She is the author of Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France Between the Wars (Cornell University Press, 2009) Her most recent article, “‘No Hiroshima in Africa’: The Algerian War and the Question of French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara” appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of History of the Present. The host of New Books in French Studies, a podcast series on the New Books Network, she lives—and records—in Vancouver, Canada.

Feature image: Original design/print by Terrence Peterson.

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