18 October 2010
Podcasting philosophical debates connects new audiences.
Professor Alexander Bird in the Department of Philosophy is into podcasting. So much so that he has started Philosophy@Bristol, a series of philosophical discussions which are recorded and then made available as podcasts.
“I really enjoy podcasts” he says. “I think they provide an easy and engaging way to learn, as well as being an effective means of communicating with different audiences.”
The idea behind Philosophy@Bristol is two-fold: first to increase the diversity of students applying to study Philosophy at the University, most of whom currently come from independent schools, where the subject is more common; and second, to raise awareness of philosophical debates with the general public. With funding from the University’s Widening Participation office, Alexander purchased some podcasting equipment and started recording group discussions, before publishing them online.
The format is simple: a number of colleagues from the Department sit around a table, sometimes joined by external academics or visitors, and participate in a discussion about some aspect of Philosophy. Alexander acts as group facilitator, and then, after the discussion has ended, pulls the material together, lightly editing it if required, before making it available for download.
The topics discussed are wide-ranging, for example Does science deliver the truth?, Knowledge and scepticism, Mind and brain, and usually last about 40 minutes. They must be of interest to staff in the Department but also sufficiently broad to attract a public audience, including young people.
“I think that the podcasts are effective in that they help potential students and the public to get a flavour of philosophical debate,” muses Alexander. “It’s really important then, that our topics and language must be accessible and not esoteric, otherwise the conversations risk alienating listeners before they’ve really got started.”
The podcasts attract good students who otherwise wouldn’t have thought of studying Philosophy or even applying to university at all. They also contribute positively to how the University is regarded, raising awareness of its research with the public. Alexander has also found that current students are listening to the podcasts, which helps move their thinking away from just meeting the standard requirements in order to complete their degrees towards developing a genuine love for learning philosophy and truly engaging with the subject.
“There are also some internal benefits such as colleagues taking the time to find out what peers think about certain issues,” continues Alexander. “On a personal level, I think that all colleagues who have participated so far have had to be far more conscious of how they express concepts, trying to make the language used as accessible as possible for a lay audience. This is a very useful discipline to develop, as it helps us to explain our research effectively to others.”
The discussions are pitched at an introductory level initially, although they tend to become more complex as they go on. “We are taking the listener on a journey” he concludes. “Even if some ideas are lost later, potential students and members of the public are getting a clearer sense of philosophical debate.”