What happens when a biomedical engineer and a literary studies scholar set out to produce a podcast about academia, culture, and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide? That’s exactly what the guests on this episode—Elizabeth Wayne and Christine “Xine” Yao—have been doing for the past four and a half years with PhDivas.
In episode 104 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Elizabeth Wayne and Christine “Xine” Yao about what it’s like to produce an academic podcast as a form of public scholarship, the transnational and discipline-specific ecology of activism, why the future of academia is public engagement, and how building spaces for folks to thrive is how Liz and Xine imagine otherwise.
Guest: Elizabeth Wayne
Elizabeth Wayne is an award-winning biomedical engineer, TED Fellow, speaker, and advocate for women in higher education. She is the cohost of PhDivas, a podcast about academia, culture, and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide, as well as an assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Her current research uses macrophages to deliver therapeutic genes to solid tumors.
In 2016, Elizabeth earned her PhD in biomedical engineering where her work in immune cell-mediated drug delivery resulted in several publications and a technology patent. Afterwards, she completed a National Cancer Institute Cancer Nanotechnology Training Program Postdoctoral Fellow in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Elizabeth is a strong advocate for women in science and entrepreneurship. She has been a chief organizer in the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP), is the recipient of the Constance and Alice Cook Award for advocacy, and in 2017, she was featured in Super Cool Scientists: A Women in Science Coloring Book.
Guest: Christine “Xine” Yao
Christine “Xine” Yao is a lecturer in American literature to 1900 at University College London.
Her book Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America is under contract with Duke University Press. Her scholarly essays have appeared in J19, Occasion, and American Quarterly.
Xine’s interests include affect studies through critical race and ethnic studies, queer of color critique, history of science, and the question of solidarity in relation to comparative racialization. Xine’s primary field is early and nineteenth century American literature but her research has also engaged graphic novels and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Xine is the co-host of PhDivas, a podcast about academia, culture, and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide, and a judge for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. Her honors include the ASA Yasuo Sakakibara Essay Prize and her research has been supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
We chatted about
- How Elizabeth and Xine created PhDivas (2:50)
- Why STEM fields need the humanities and vice versa (6:11)
- How universities pit scientists and humanists against each other to stifle labor activism on campus (11:54)
- The ecology of activism and the importance of recognizing different types of activism (14:01)
- The future of podcasting and public intellectualism (17:11)
- Xine’s forthcoming book about racialized affect and article about Avatar: The Last Airbender (0:00)
- Liz’s new lab and the importance of quieter phases of growth (33:31)
- Imagining otherwise (34:12)
Why STEM needs the humanities
I’m a scientist who really thinks we need the humanities. Science is political, science is definitely racist and sexist at times, and we have bias. Just because we can measure something plus or minus a certain percentage doesn’t mean that how we shape our questions or who gets to answer those questions doesn’t matter.— Elizabeth Wayne
Why universities pit STEM against humanities
Higher education in general relies on a divide and conquer tactic, pitting disciplines against each other, particularly STEM and the humanities based on the idea that we have opposing ideologies. This makes it easy to splinter efforts for change in the university, be it for labor conditions for our students, ourselves, or cleaning staff. But really we are all in this together.— Christine “Xine” Yao
Valuing different forms of activism
It’s time for scientist to start thinking about what activism looks like for them….In science, my presence is activism. I am in the lab, I am being vocal, and I’m not giving up. That actually can be just as powerful in terms of fighting the status quo, fighting what we think a scientist should look like….We should allow for activism to look different, especially based on how the structures of our disciplines are and what the social pressures are and what the history is.— Elizabeth Wayne
The gender politics of podcasting
I can understand the public perception that podcasts are sort of seen as a bro-y thing and the joke about getting a bunch of guys together. But personally when I think of academic podcasts, I think of so many ones that are run by women or gender minorities. I was like, “Wait, what about Imagine Otherwise? What about us with PhDivas? What about so many other podcasts I can think of?” The ones that come to mind are none of the ones that are run by men.— Christine “Xine” Yao
Imagining otherwise: Elizabeth
When I’m thinking about the world I want to create, I start with my lab. I start with my students and trying to get them to see the bigger picture and what they’re a part of. I want them to really think about what new knowledge they can create. Not just in terms of, I don’t know, this is what we’re going to study in this Petri dish, but this is why this Petri dish matters to me and the world.— Elizabeth Wayne
Imagining otherwise: Xine
At the beginning of last year, there was a study that came out that said there’s only 25 Black women who are full professors in any discipline in the UK. I’m the first and only faculty member of color in my department. So one type of change I’m trying to work on is finding other scholars of any level and trying to connect us together so we can survive this and make it a space where we can thrive. This is the long-term project that I have with a couple of other friends over the next couple of decades: just trying to make this space more livable for us. This is not quite the horizon of absolute ambition in terms of overall change, but that is something I would like to see.— Christine “Xine” Yao
More from Elizabeth Wayne and Christine “Xine” Yao
- Elizabeth’s website
- Elizabeth on Twitter
- Xine’s website
- Xine on Twitter
- PhDivas podcast
- PhDivas on Twitter
People and projects discussed
- Dexter Thomas
- Fresh Off the Boat
- Trayvon Martin
- Michael Brown
- Black Lives Matter/Movement for Black Lives
- C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists
- C19 podcast
- Koritha Mitchell
- Hannah McGregor
- She Podcasts
- Avatar: The Last Airbender
- Turtle Island
- Nicola Rollock’s report Staying Power: The Career Experiences and Strategies of UK Black Female Professors (which found that UK universities employ only 25 Black women professors )
- How to Start an Academic Podcast
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.
Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
Cathy [00:03] : Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise.
Cathy [00:19]: I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. What happens when a biomedical engineer and a literary studies scholar set out to produce a podcast about academia, culture, and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide? That’s exactly what my guests today on the show, Elizabeth Wayne and Christine Yao, have been doing for the past four and a half years with PhDivas.
Cathy [00:42]: Elizabeth Wayne is an award-winning biomedical engineer, TED Fellow, speaker, and advocate for women in higher education. She’s an assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and her current research uses microphages to deliver therapeutic genes to solid tumors.
Elizabeth is a strong advocate for women in science and entrepreneurship. She’s been a chief organizer of the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics and in 2017 she was featured in Super Cool Scientists: A Women in Science Coloring Book.
Cathy [01:15]: Her co-host on PhDivas is Christine “Xine” Yao, who’s a lecturer in American literature to 1900 at the University College of London.
Her book Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in 19th Century America, is under contract with Duke University Press and her scholarly essays have appeared in J19, Occasion, and American Quarterly.
Xine’s interests include affect studies through critical race and ethnic studies, queer of color critique, history of science, and the question of solidarity in relation to comparative racialization. She’s a judge for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and her research has been supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Cathy [01:57]: In our interview, Liz, Xine, and I chat about what it’s like to produce an academic podcast as a form of public scholarship (much like Imagine Otherwise), the transnational and discipline-specific ecology of social justice activism, why the future of academia is public engagement, and how building spaces for folks to thrive is how Liz and Xine imagine otherwise.
[To Liz and Xine] Thanks so much for being with us today.
Elizabeth Wayne (Liz) [02:24]: Hi, it’s great to be here.
Christine Yao (Xine) [02:26]: Yeah, I’m very excited. As soon as I saw your email I was like, “Oh yes. Oh my god, Imagine Otherwise!”
Liz [02:33]: Yeah. I can always tell when Xine’s excited because she messages me on multiple platforms. So, are you going to see Twitter first or should I WhatsApp you or should I email you first? Let’s just do all three. I’m like, “Okay, she’s really excited.”
Cathy [02:50]: So a lot of our listeners are already big fans of yours and of your fantastic podcast that you co-host, PhDivas, but I know we do have some newer listeners who might be new to your show or unfamiliar with it. So before we dive into some of the details, I’d love for you to just to give a little bit of a brief overview of what your podcast is all about.
Xine [03:09]: So our tagline is that PhDivas is a podcast about academia, culture, and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide. And I think we’ve been doing this for at least five years now, actually.
Liz [03:20]: Four and a half. We’re getting close to five. We should do something special, yeah.
Cathy [03:24]: What got you two interested in podcasting in general? And what made you want to co-host a show together, because that’s a whole other thing, right?
Liz [03:34]: This is always a very funny story because we got interested in podcasting through a friend. Mostly Xine got interested in podcasting and then said, “Liz, will you do this with me?” If the story isn’t right, Xine, you can tell me. Sometimes history makes me want to embellish, you know how things happen.
But let’s just say that Xine and I first met when we were graduate students at Cornell and we were both graduate resident fellows in a student dorm. So we were living with the students and we also would eat with them. It just kind of happened organically that we’d all be sitting together and students would have these interesting questions and we would have these interesting clap backs. I mean not clap backs. I mean, they thought they were clap backs, but they were more like, well actually this is how the world works.
Liz [04:22]: We ended up being a really good pair because Xine like is like a human dictionary and like a human Wikipedia. And I know a lot of STEM stuff and we just kind of verged on that spectrum. One day Xine was on a local Cornell radio show talking and I was in the middle of an experiment, so I was tuning in. I had like 30 minutes between an incubation and she was talking and I kept texting her and then I had to tell her, “Hey Xine, I can hear me texting you, can you turn off the phone? You’re on the radio right now.”
Xine [04:58]: Guilty.
Liz [05:00]: But it really led into [the fact that] we have good conversations, we think there’s value in this. Then a friend said, “Why don’t you guys do a podcast?” And then he—actually Dexter Thomas, shout out to Dexter—actually produced our first podcast. The rest is history.
Xine [05:15]: And I think it’s so appropriate that it happened while you were incubating because really what was incubating was our collaboration. The way I like thinking about the conversations we had was sort of like we were tag-teaming each other both in terms of our energy as well as our knowledge bases. I feel like that’s a lot of our dynamic actually.
It’s sort of interesting to me that even that initial radio moment was probably indicative of the interesting collaboration that we’re doing. On the one hand it was about you doing your science and having this moment doing your science. And the reason why I was on the radio is because of this particular graduate student reading that I got with a number of other collaborators about Asian American studies and we were particularly talking about anti-blackness and Asian America generally. I’m was talking about Fresh off the Boat at the time. So there’s this wonderful confluence of the way that we were both, it was both us working as graduate students as well as the topics at the same time coming together.
Cathy [06:11]: I really love that interdisciplinary dialogue and relationship that you have because you cover a whole range of topics. We can talk about favorite episodes in a minute, but you really do both bring your individual scholarly expertise as well as your personal interests and backgrounds to bear on these topics. It’s one of the things that I think makes the podcast particularly rich. What do you find particularly productive or even just fun about that kind of interdisciplinary conversation?
Liz [06:41]: You know, sometimes I wonder what Xine gets out of this because for me, I’m a scientist who really thinks we need the humanities. I think any scientist who tries to take the human out of their research is just being very dense. Science is political, science is definitely racist at times and sexist, and we have bias. Just because we can measure something plus or minus a certain percentage doesn’t mean that how we shape our questions or who gets to answer those questions doesn’t matter.
Liz [07:17]: I like being able to talk to Xine because I get to talk about that aspect of my life—my personality and even how that infiltrates. On the other side, I’m wondering like, do you want to know about cancer? What can I tell you as a humanities person about how science works? I guess that might be the benefit of just knowing what’s it like on the other side of the PhD, the experience of a PhD. I think a lot of our earlier episodes were literally debunking what we thought about the other respective disciplines and seeing that we actually had more in common in the struggle.
Xine [07:57]: Yeah. And to just back that up, I find it very funny how Liz said she wonders what I get out of it because I worry about that on my side as well.
I’m someone who works on the history of science and medicine. So it’s so useful to me to know someone who’s doing that work currently in the field as opposed to the way that that work can become abstracted, particularly because I work on it in the 19th century. But also I think that there’s this aspect of interdisciplinarity that doesn’t get emphasized enough, which is simply the social aspect of being around people from other disciplines which isn’t so easily instrumentalized towards the type of actionable goals or outcomes that the neoliberal university wants us to have.
Xine [08:41]: I think in that regard, the sort of collaboration that we’re doing is so important in this moment where the university of becoming more and more corporatized in all different parts of the world. I’m currently based in the UK and the way that universities often or higher education in general relies on a divide and conquer tactic, pitting disciplines against each other, particularly STEM and the humanities based on the sort of idea that we’ll have opposing ideologies. It’s easier to splinter any sort of efforts to make change in the university, be it for labor conditions for our students, for ourselves, for cleaning staff. We we really we should all be in this together. And I think that’s really informative. Also, scientists are fun to talk to.
Liz [09:27]: Oh yeah, I would say that. Our friend circles, at least when we were in the same geographic location, our friend circles also started to merge. So she wasn’t just talking with me, she was also talking with other people that are in my lab. So yeah, that was, that was interesting.
The other thing happened for her where I started to learn more about what other people meant. I also think it’s funny because now when I’m in a purely scientific space and they go, “Well what do English PhDs do? How do they actually do research?” And I’m like, “Well actually…” I become that person. Like actually this is hard and actually you can’t just write anything. And you know, it’s just as rigorous actually as science. You know what I mean? I sound like I’m being condescending.
Xine [10:16]: No. I find myself continually going back to the pressures that scientists uniquely face in terms of setting up labs in terms of the cost of it, the fact that all of a sudden you have to have the skills in terms of management as well as doing science as well as grant writing. All these things that it seems like people are inadequately prepared for. And the reason why it is harder for our STEM colleagues to go on strike because, you know, their mice might die or the fact that there are very different financial pressures on them. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t also concerned about, say, labor issues, but it impacts them very differently.
Liz [10:51]: Yeah. You know, this might be along the lines of maybe not my favorite, but one of them, one of the really poignant moments early on for me. I remember there was this conversation I was having with Xine where she was saying, “STEM people have all the money, you have all the money.” And I thought like, “We don’t have all the money.” I mean, we have money but it doesn’t go in my pocket .
Liz [11:16]: Every semester, I didn’t know where my funding source was coming from and how that would change. There was a lot of precarity that got introduced because of that. So I think being able to talk about the ways it looks like we have more money but we actually don’t have it. It’s not like we have like exponentially more power because we have more funding because you have to keep that up. You have to apply for funding constantly. As faculty now, I have to make sure all my students are funded and that comes from my grants. If I don’t get grants, that negatively impacts not only my students’ lives but my career as well.
Cathy [11:54]: One of the ways that you trace this STEM/humanities divide through the podcast is by talking about labor issues like you mentioned. Some of your particularly recent episodes have talked about the way this has played out in the UK and then connected it to the US system as well as other countries. It’s just really fascinating to see how labor activism, coalitional activism across campus, is both enabled in some ways by the kind of STEM/humanities divide but also really curtailed in some really concrete ways. And I appreciate you addressing that because I think that’s an element of campus activism that doesn’t get talked about very much
Xine [12:37]: At least on the humanities side, there tends to be this implicit sense that “Oh, we are the ones who are more political and the scientists are so apolitical.” When we’re in it, I think we sort of take for granted this implicit ideological line in the sand when it’s actually far more complicated. On the humanities side, especially with the organizing we were doing at Cornell, we were trying to unionize at the time. I felt like it often felt on the humanities side at least a sort of simplistic mentality that we had some sort of moral as well as critical high ground.
Liz [13:10]: Yeah. That’s usually the perspective that I get and that’s something I used to feel. An example of this would be when Trayvon Martin was killed and all these protests were going on, Black Lives Matter and Michael Brown. I would think about how this was on my mind and all I was thinking about. But when I went to my lab, that wasn’t what anyone was thinking about. I felt like I was unsafe and I felt like my future children were unsafe. It was a huge deal for me and it wasn’t a deal for the scientists. I kept wondering, “Well what do I do about that? Am I being a coward or being untruthful to myself because I am not somehow doing something more active?”
Liz [14:01]: I really had to think about this idea of what does it mean to be activist and be a scientist? What would that look like? [I was] thinking about how the actual structure of science makes it harder to do certain things and maybe it’s time for scientist to start thinking about what activism looks like for them.
I’m going to over-exaggerate this, Xine, but let’s say that I’m in the humanities. I don’t have homework assignments that are due every day or I don’t have six-hour lab courses that happen at very rigorous time points. Maybe I can be out physically doing something because I have the time or something. If the time structures are different, it means I can do different things or think about how I stand out or don’t stand out.
Liz [14:49]: I’ve learned now that it’s really simplistic to say that humanities people are supposed to be more active and vocal, right? Like if I’m an Africana studies major, I’m an English major, I have some sort of social major, then of course I can wear t-shirts that have like the motherland on them and I can do all these things. I think that’s simplistic, but in some ways it’s a little more true than the way that I feel policed in my own environments where I have to be careful of what I say or how loudly I say it because I am the only Black person or I’m the only person who has the pedagogical knowledge or this structure of what does it mean to be woke. So in a different [inaudible] you may hear that all the time, you don’t.
Liz [15:34]: To wrap this up, the point is that I’ve had to realize that in science, my presence is activism. I am in the lab, I am being vocal, and I’m not giving up. That actually can be just as powerful in terms of fighting the status quo, fighting what we think a scientist should look like, as it would be for me to be, I don’t know, doing some protest on campus. Not to say that I can’t, but we should allow for activism to look different, especially based on how the structures of our disciplines are and what the social pressures are and what the history is.
Xine [16:08]: I was going to say that one of the best ways I’ve seen this framed recently was that there is an ecology of activism. We’re not all going to be doing the same types of activism, but to realize what roles can we best occupy the way it works with other roles.
Liz [16:25]: I feel like sometimes there’s pressure that we have to do all the things and it all looks the same for everyone. I’ve felt pressure from humanities where they are angry because they think that you don’t care. They think that you’re not sacrificing as much as they’re sacrificing. But that’s actually not true. I can tell you I sacrifice quite a bit. It just gets silenced or it has its own different structure. We’ve also had conversations about how do we support each other in our different disciplines to both explore what activism look likes in the ecology, the ecological landscape, and support each other but also not blame each other for thinking that the way I am doing or someone else is doing activism is the way that the other people should do activism.
Cathy [17:11]: I think this connects actually really nicely to what I wanted to talk to you about regarding public scholarship because so much of the stuff that you talk about on your show, and certainly the conversations that I have with folks on this show, are about getting research-inflected questions or scholarly-inflected ideas and research to different audiences and different communities that may not pick up a journal article or may not read that particular kind of journal or that particular field. One of the reasons that I started Imagine Otherwise back in 2015 and one of the most exciting, I think, parts of the show has been seeing that range of public intellectual work just increase and increase and increase over the years. I love that. And your show is such a fantastic example of that. I would love to talk with you about where you see public scholarship in the form of podcasting in particular going in the future or maybe where do you want to see it go?
Liz [18:10]: Well I think it’s on the rise. Xine, I’m going to give you a little time to formulate your answer to this. What I’ve noticed is that there are more courses popping up about how to podcast, how to actually craft a story. I think that having faculty who are finally getting the…I won’t say the courage but the momentum is building around this idea of podcasting and making stories and also producing students who enjoy doing that. So I think there’s definitely a space for it. I’ve seen more faculty look at it as less of a fringe thing. Kind of like how academic Twitter is a thing now, which I’m not sure is always a good thing because people are just transferring the same negative tone and things you didn’t like when it happened in person they’re just putting it online anyway. So I think public scholarship is definitely increasing.
Liz [19:02]: I think that with the decreasing government funding and the slow but silent shift towards foundation funding, people are trying to grab for money or attention. This might be more true for the science, I am not sure.
Liz [19:41]: But people are making themselves be better communicators and that means podcasting and this idea of being a public scholar is going to become more important. I think more people are trying to do it, but they don’t really know what they’re doing. I think that’s an exciting thing and an opportunity to make some ground rules of like how we do this effectively. Letting people know that this isn’t just about pop culture or it’s possible to be intellectually rigorous on a social media, popular platform.
I think once people really get their heads out the ivory tower it will reach its true power. Or what’s really going to happen is it’s going to become less fringe and then the mainstream academics will do it. My fear is that they will overshadow the women, people of color, and queer academics who have been really doing this since the beginning. But that’s what happens with every new technology.
Xine [20:14]: Yes. So to chime in with some other specifics that really excited me: I just finished being the founding chair for this podcast initiative from C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists and I’m really proud of what we did there. We basically built a podcast where members with little to no podcasting experience could pitch episodes and the core team then would help to guide the episode creators whose proposals were accepted to be able to make their own podcasts. I think what we’re trying to do is different. It’s is not simply just to create a core team that would produce the episodes but to create a platform where we can train people to make their podcast ideas become a reality.
Xine [21:11]: It’s been really exciting and there’s a lot of work that we did there that I’m really excited about, particularly this one that I helped produce by Koritha Mitchell, which is about the use of the n-word and other slurs in the classroom. Typically, when you’re working on 19th-century American texts like infamously, well I was going to say Uncle Tom’s Cabin but specifically thinking of Huckleberry Finn, of course the use of the n-word is there.
Another way forward I see is what a friend of mine, Hannah McGregor, has been doing where she has been working with Wilfrid Laurier University Press in terms of creating guidelines for what a peer-reviewed podcast would look like. So trying to think of how to get podcasts evaluated as scholarship, as rigorous. There’s a public aspect but public can also mean potential as scholarship and such. So those are some things I find really hopeful.
Xine [21:39]: I’m also hoping that the way forward might be to think about hubs for different types of humanities podcasts or more academic podcasts in general because I think at the moment we’re doing work separately or there’s podcasts are being created for specific projects and then those are like one-off things. But if there’s perhaps ways that we can better leverage networking across the number of different projects at once, which might be a way to band together and create a larger community.
Cathy [22:23]: The training is a really interesting element and I love that initiative. I will definitely put a link to that in those show notes because I think that’s something that a lot of folks would be interested in. I’ve been talking to people who are really interested in podcasting and they’re like, “I would totally do that except I have no earthly idea where to start.”
Cathy [22:46]: Podcasting communities beyond academia are really fantastic in a lot of ways and they’re also not fantastic in other ways, like any community I suppose and like any new technology I suppose. I know that that intimidation factor is something that prevents a lot of folks from getting into podcasting or just seeing if it’s something that they would want to try. So I’d love the idea of giving people a framework and giving people training and giving people an infrastructure where you don’t have to learn every single piece of it. You don’t have to learn how to edit if you don’t want to, but you can. You don’t have to learn how to do graphic design for all of the images, but you can. You don’t have to learn all of the pieces just to get your foot in the door and see if it’s something that you’d be interested in. So I think that’s a really great initiative.
Liz [23:25]: I think this idea of being a public intellectual is still very terrifying for many academics.
Cathy [23:34]: Definitely.
Liz [23:36]: Something that I noticed as we interviewed people, like let’s say we’d have great conversations over coffee just in-person. And when I say, “Wow, we should do this on a podcast,” it became, “Oh no, no, we’re not going to do that” because they’re afraid of what that might mean for their career.
The other aspect of this is that they’re afraid of putting themselves out in social media and risking exposure to trolls or other types of dangerous sites that could lead to harassment, online harassment. That particularly was something that was on people’s minds of like, “How do I protect myself?” “What if someone comes and attacks me?”
Liz [24:21]: Overall, I think the benefits of being on the podcast have been good. So even if those are the conversations that people had before they got on the podcast afterwards, they were saying people are now talking to me about my research. People were coming up to me or I had an interview and someone said they listened to my episode and it helped them understand my work and where I was coming from. So my hope is that people will engage with this more, not only, as Xine said, as we make more tools but as we also try to academify (is that a word? So that’s a word now) but we’re going to make that more of an academically acceptable process, more people will engage.
Liz [25:09]: It can also serve as a platform for them to talk about their ideas in a way that’s more conversational than a peer-reviewed article will be. I don’t think articles are meant to be conversational. They’re meant to be terse and academic and intellectual writings, very compact pieces of work. So I think it’ll be exciting to see how that happens.
And also training about what to expect, what not to expect, and then what does it mean to get over that fear of putting yourself and your work, as your work is really yourself. Putting that online in a context where you don’t have control over it anymore.
Xine [25:34]: So and also this is very deeply gen-. Sorry.
Cathy [25:36]: No, go ahead.
Xine [25:37]: I was going to say it’s very deeply gendered. In fact, I was surprised that at the end of last year I saw someone tweet that they saw that there was a search shift in terms of blogs to podcasts and doing public scholarship they thought it was very gendered because they thought blogs were where women or I guess more gender minorities sort of gravitated to the medium.
Xine [25:59]: Whereas like podcasts in their opinion was much more bro-y as a medium. That really surprised me. I can understand the public perception that podcasts are sort of seen as a bro-y thing and sort of the joke about getting a bunch of guys together. But personally when I think of academic podcasts, I think of so many ones that are run by women or gender minorities. I was like, “Wait, what about Imagine Otherwise? What about us with PhDivas? What about so many other podcasts I can think of?” The ones that come to mind are none of the ones that are run by men.
Cathy [26:30]: It’s been really fun over the past several years to see the growth of feminist podcast communities or women’s podcast communities. Those don’t always align for sure in the same way they don’t always align in other realms. But I’m thinking of She Podcasts for example, which is a really vibrant community. They put on a conference recently that was pretty fantastic. A lot of those communities have arisen in response to the bro-ing of podcasting.
Cathy [26:58]: If you follow a major mainstream podcast news or industry podcast news (which are two really different forms of media representation, which is kind of interesting), a lot of it is men talking about stuff. There’s often a technology focus to it, an emphasis on analytics, and an emphasis on advertising. My god, the advertising conversation is absurd. It’s all like “How do I make money on this? How do I make money on this? How do I make money on this?” But there are all these people of color podcasters, queer podcasters, feminist podcasters, and women pod-casters who are like, “Dude, we have way other concerns about all kinds of stuff.” Certainly those more social justice-y podcasting communities or minority podcasting communities have really expanded over the past couple of years and it’s been really exciting.
Liz [27:48]: Yeah, I’m excited about it. It’s something that I would argue for both of us keeps us going and keeps us doing the podcast because we recognize how important it is. Have you ever experienced any sense of fandom from your podcast? Like when you meet someone who listens to it and it? It really shocks me because there’s this small corner of my mind that still thinks that I’m just putting this out into the abyss of the internet, but no one’s really looking, right? No one’s really seeing. And now there’s actually been moments where I’ve been around colleagues and someone will mention, “Oh, Liz has a podcast.” And they pull out their phone, they look it up and I’m like, “Oh no, don’t do this.”
Cathy [28:34]: It’s a really different kind of attention then what we’re used to in academia. It’s like not a whole lot of people are like, “Oh my God, you wrote that amazing journal article that revolutionized the world,” right? I mean, maybe. Sometimes, sometimes.
Liz [28:51]: Yeah. Well I had this funny story of when I became a TED fellow and I was working with someone and they said, “Oh, I’ve listened to your podcast.” I was like, “Oh, that’s great.” And then he said that he listened to…I guess what I’m saying to make this shorter, when people say they listened to my podcast, I’m now terrified because they seem to remember the ones where I said something innuendo-ish or really interesting. Like one faculty member when I was a postdoc said, “Oh, I listened to your episode about Nicki Minaj.” I’m like, “Noooooo!” I mean, it’s not bad but it’s like our first conversation. I don’t know what you think about Nicki Minaj, and I stand by what I said, but it was interesting.
Cathy [29:37]: It’s that thing of we don’t get to control how our work is received, which is unnerving in a lot of ways, but it comes with the territory I suppose.
So I’m curious what kind of new projects you two have coming up either together through the podcast or individually.
Liz [29:54]: Xine has this cool new project that I’m secretly, privately, openly following her on.
Xine [30:00]: I guess in terms of my research, there’s one big research project I have been working on, which is of course my first book. Then there’s the project that people are really excited about who are not in my field. So I’ll start with the one that is supposed to be more important for my career, which I also really care about.
I was really lucky that near the end of last year, I got a book contract with Duke University Press for my book manuscript Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in 19th Century America. I’m theorizing unfeeling as a type of racialized and queer form of disaffection from the culture of sentiments. I’m thinking about how quickly we respond to allegations of unfeeling, particularly when it’s being wielded as a weapon against minorities people, as “No, but we have feelings just like them,” like the dominant group of people. It’s like proving that through literature we see that, “Oh, they thought that they didn’t feel the same way, but no they have the same hearts as everyone else.”
Xine [31:04]: Instead, I’m saying “Wait a second, rather than having to make the move of saying that you have feelings like everyone else, how about we recognize the way that unfeeling can be a type of resistance or a type of survival mechanism?” So I’m looking at racialized and queer forms like frigidity, “Oriental inscrutability”, what I call “unsympathetic blackness” and thinking about the way that they offer alternative ways of thinking about change and ambivalence and complicated feelings.
Xine [31:42]: In some ways it actually grows out of the collaborations I’ve been having with colleagues like Liz, where we talk about the emotional armor that we have or the way that we have to suspend our feelings to get through certain situations. Rather than vilifying those moments, I think that we should recognize the sort of work that that does and perhaps the way that it opens up new possibilities that don’t have to just continually appeal to dominant feelings, that actually allows us to think differently about types of change in the world.
So that’s my main project and it’s in 19th-century American literature, but I’m hoping to open up conversations and modes of thinking that I hope will be useful for a lot of people who are interested in critical race and ethnic studies, affect studies, queer theory, and queer color critique.
Xine [32:23]: So that’s my big project but the one that people are particularly excited about particularly and the one that’s more perhaps immediately exciting is this article I’m working on about Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is the greatest show of all time. Great. I will fight people on this. It’s a Nickelodeon show.
What I’m looking at this show for is the way that allows us to think about relationships between Asian and Indigenous people. It gets us thinking about Asian Indigeneity in ways I think are really under recognized and thinking about it on a global scale.
Xine [32:58]: If we suspend whiteness, because Avatar: The Last Airbender presents us a world without whiteness, how do we pay attention to the way that, say, Asian colonialism and Asian North American settler colonialism operates and the way that indigeneity operates in what we call Turtle Island, but also indigeneity, which is under-recognized within Asia. I think that the show allows us to think more capaciously and perhaps more critically about the ways that these dynamics are often occluded when we have these conversations that often over represent European white colonialism and its aftermath. That, of course, is very formative but at the same time I thinkit obscures the complexity of some of these other conversations we should be having.
Cathy [33:30]: Very cool.
Liz [33:31]: And for me, a new project, I’m in a growing phase right now, like in a hermit phase. I’m starting my lab. I just started my research position and my faculty position in August. So I’m recruiting students and literally putting together my lab and writing grants so I will be in a hole. I always feel like I’m in a hole of some sort, but I’m going to be in a creative hole, which even though it’s not a new up and coming project is very important. Maybe just to remind people that there are phases where you are showing off your work and phases where you are allowing yourself to think and live in the space of opportunities.
Cathy [34:12]: So this brings me to my last and my absolute favorite question that I get to talk with folks at that really gets at the heart behind the show and the reason why I started this. That’s your version of a better world—that world that you work toward when you record the podcast, when you teach your classes, when you put together your labs, when you do your research and your writing. So I’ll ask you this ginormous question that I think we don’t get enough opportunities to answer, particularly when we have to spend a lot of our time fighting against things. So what’s the world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?
Xine [34:46]: I’ve been in the UK for a year now and it’s really interesting to see how the terrain of imagining changes differs given geographical location. UK academia looks so different from both American and Canadian academia. What I’m working on there is just trying to make space for other scholars of color. I was not prepared for how much wider that space is.
Xine [35:10]: At the beginning of last year, there was a study that came out that said there’s only 25 Black women who are full professors in any discipline in the UK. I’m the first and only faculty member of color in my department. So for me, one type of change I’m trying to work on is finding other scholars of any level and trying to connect us together so we can try to survive this and try to make it a space where we can thrive. I feel like this is really the long-term project that I have with a couple of other friends over the next couple of decades: just trying to make this space more livable for us. This is not quite the horizon of absolute ambition in terms of overall change, but that is something I would like to see.
Liz [35:47]: Hmm. I think mine is very similar. I want people to feel empowered by what they study and what they do. I want people to self-explore and feel fulfilled. That sounds very broad, but when I think about how much time people spend in academia learning about people that we’ve never known before. I’m just thinking about how everyone knows about Isaac Newton. Okay, physics people know about Isaac Newton. Engineers know about Isaac Newton, but we don’t know this person really. When we get to explore ourselves and explore our own communities and be able to make those connections and have that be received as a mainstream acceptable idea.
Liz [36:41]: When I’m thinking about the world I want to create, I start with my lab. I start with my students and trying to get them to see the bigger picture and what they’re a part of. I want them to really think about what new knowledge they can create. Not just in terms of, I don’t know, this is what we’re going to study in this Petri dish, but this is why this Petri dish matters to me and the world. And I’m going to spend my time articulating that. My articulating my importance in the world and having it be valid, valued and welcomed.
Cathy [37:02]: I think those are both really amazing visions—and intertwined ones in really significant ways. Well, I just want to say thank you both so much for joining me on the podcast and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.
Liz [37:17]: Yeah. Thank you so much, Cathy.
Cathy [37:23]: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guests as well as find links to the people in projects we discussed on the show.