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12 February 2016

Listen Up: CBC Radio Explores Work of PhDs.

“I have always loved the idea of immersing myself in a dissertation - I envied people who were doing their PhDs – I would think ‘take me with you!” says Tom Howell, co- creator of a radio project inspired by the work of Canadian PhDs.

Taking the audience on an exploration and introducing them to students who have spent years thinking about one topic is the mission of CBC’s IDEAS from the Trenches. It takes themes from written dissertations and turns them in a full length radio documentary.

“We ask the students which experts and scholars in their field they would like to be on the program,” says co-producer Nicola Luksic. “Turns out that sometimes the most famous scholars have been the most giving and enthusiastic. It is inspiring to the students and stimulating for the audience.”

But this isn’t an old-style talking heads format. The producers weave interviews, sounds, music and mental imagery into lively 54 minute pieces broadcast on CBC Radio and available on podcasts.

The work of PhDs is a good fit for CBC Ideas which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of delivering the best in contemporary thought. They cover social issues, culture and the arts, geopolitics, history, biography, science and technology, and the humanities.

The producers aim for five Trenches episodes a year. They aren’t necessarily looking for earth-changing research but rather thoughtful and different perspectives.

“We have fun, engaging conversations with interesting people who have thought deeply about their research, “says Luksic.

Kristin Rodier in the IDEAS studio.

It was an eye-opening experience for Edmonton’s Kristin Rodier (University of Alberta PhD Philosophy). A self-described extrovert she literally had “thousands of conversations” as she developed her thesis. But most of her talking was at conferences, and with fellow academics.

“it is it is nice to know that your abstract philosophy dissertation is interesting to others. It was good for me to have that,” she says. And over the months that the project took shape, she was fascinated to see – or hear – what material the production team chose to reach a general audience.

For example: Her work deals with habits and she titled her thesis : Habits of Resistance: Feminism, Phenomenology, and Temporality. Unpacking that language, the CBC encapsulated this way: “Habits are normally understood as either virtue or vice. This philosopher looks at what happens when those habits are disrupted with an eye to social change.”

Rodier said she was surprised at the reaction to the final product. “My department had a listening party which was great,” she says. “But I also heard from people I never thought would be interested. It heightened my profile.” The Trenches team says audience reaction to the pieces has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When the whole ‘Canada is hip’ thing was going on, we had American listeners writing in to say that Canada is hip because it actually has a show about PhDs,” laughs Luksic.

As a broadcaster, Luksic has seen the project help PhDs develop stronger communications skills and appreciate the cross-pollination benefits of working with a team. “One of our participants had a Eureka moment while he was going through the taped interviews we had done with experts, “she says. “It solidified his conclusion.” Howell says he is struck by how self-deprecating many of the students are about their work. But when the process is over, he has observed an ability to be “way more on point and understanding why their work is important.”

Rodier concurs. “It is a great exercise for grad students the same way the 3Minute Thesis is, “ she says. “In my field (philosophy) we have the old school way of sharing – things like conferences that very few people come to. But there is a thirst to make it acceptable. Where I live in Edmonton, professors personally fund popular events to get philosophy out into the community. As a liberal arts advocate I think there should be more of this kind of thing.”

Luksic and Howell’s commitment to good story-telling and fascinating ideas will be part of this year’s Canada 3Minute Thesis competition. They are teaming up and bringing their expertise to the judges’ panel later this spring.

Think you have what it takes to share your ideas with Canadian radio and podcast listeners?

You can reach the program producers here.

And you can listen to the episodes here