Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation
Episode 16: Interview with Brenna Clarke Gray
Transcript by Jennifer Jill Fellows
Jennifer Jill Fellows: This episode comes with a content warning. A discussion of violence against feminists begins at the 21 minute mark, and ends at the 28 minute mark.
Jill: Welcome to the last episode of season one of Gender, Sex and Tech: continuing the conversation. I can’t imagine a better way to end the season than by participating in The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2022, so hello to everyone joining us for the first time for the carnival. The theme of this year’s carnival is “Rhetoric: Spaces and Places in and Beyond the Academy”. And with regards to that theme, in this episode I’d like to indulge in a bit of self-reflection, if that’s okay. I’ve been thinking about this whole podcasting project for a while, and wondering why I was drawn to podcasting as a good complement for the text I had co-edited with Lisa Smith.
I started to wonder how I might best communicate this podcasting journey I’ve been on. How I might think about what it’s been like to speak into the void, in the vain hope that someone is out there listening. Hello?
And I started to wonder if maybe the best way to think about this, was to think of podcasting itself as a form of feminist praxis. Fortunately, I know someone who might be able to help me articulate what I’ve been thinking.
Jill: Hi everybody. Welcome to Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. I am your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows and today I’ve invited Dr. Brenna Clarke Gray to join us. Today I’m speaking to Dr. Brenna Clarke Gray. Dr. Gray has a PhD in Canadian Literature, and is the coordinator of education technologies at Thompson Rivers University, in BC, and is a podcaster of her own. She is the host of the higher education pedagogical podcast You Got This, which is fabulous. You should all check it out. And co-host of the young adult fiction and film podcast, Hazel and Katness and Harry and Star. Her academic research focuses on Canadian comic books, visual culture, and Canadian literature. And today, she’s here to talk about podcasting as feminist praxis. That’s right. We’re going to get meta on the show today. A podcast talking about podcasting.
Jill: Hey Brenna, Welcome to the show.
Brenna Clarke Gray: Hi Jill, Thanks for having me. I’m very excited to be here.
Jill: I’m excited to have you here. Brenna and I do know each other outside of podcasting, but also I listen to her podcasts. So it feels like even when I don’t get to talk to you, Brenna, I still sort of get to talk to you, if that makes sense.
Brenna: It is the danger of your friends getting podcasts though, because I find that sometimes I think I’ve been in touch with someone when really I’ve just listen to their podcast. Not the same actually, but it feels like the same. So, yeah.
Jill: So I think it’s important to be mindful that the existence of digital space is dependent on physical space. Servers and cables and computers and other devices occupy physical space. The Cloud isn’t true physical, much as metaphors might encourage us to believe otherwise. And much of that physical space, at least in North America, occupies stolen land. So as I record Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation today, I want to acknowledge that I am a settler on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people of the QiqéytNation. And Brenna where are you joining us from today?
Brenna: Brenna: I am an uninvited visitor on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc territory which is within the unceded traditional lands of Secwépemc’ulucw. And before this, I spent time in Algonquin, Anishinaabe and Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kma’ki territories, and Qiqéytterritories. And I think that, I don’t know, I just try to be mindful of the fact that we work in this sector that requires, assumes, expects movement across territory as opposed to connection to community. And so, yeah, I tried to be mindful of that. It’s one of the things that we should probably be working to dismantle.
Jill: That’s a really great point. Thank you.
Jill: So, Brenna, we will be talking about podcasts, but I want to start by backing up a little bit and ask you if you can tell me a bit about your academic journey. So how did you come to acquire a PhD in Canadian Literature?
Brenna: That’s a good question. I started off as a political science major at Carlton and then I found out you have to take stats to be in the social sciences. And I was like, “Oh, no, I don’t want to do that.” Which is especially funny because my, my poor dad is a statistician and my general like terror of math, he feel like both confused by and, I think somehow responsible for he’s the only reason I got through high school math as far as I did. I made it to grade ten back in the day when grade ten was the last, last math you needed to get through high school in Ontario.
BrennaL So yeah, anyway, I wasn’t gonna take stats. And so I looked around in general, I like doing things I’m good at. And I got really good marks in my first year English class. And I thought, I’ll just do that then. Because I sort of just like, I don’t know, lack imagination, I guess, I just kept doing English until there wasn’t any more English to do. That ends up getting a PhD.
Jill: Right? See, you were like at the end of your Bachelor’s, Oh, is there more I can do? Yeah. Sign me up for that.
BrennaL Yeah. Exactly. It’s like do I figure out like some creative, carve some creative path through the world with a BA in English, like so many very interesting people do, or do I just do more school? And just doing more school felt a lot easier at the time. So I did that. And then I was really lucky to be accepted to the PhD program at University of New Brunswick. I say lucky because I had a hard time and my Master’s degree. It was a really big program with a lot of students. It was a terminal MA at the time, Carleton has a PhD now, but at the time it didn’t and it was like a big, there’s just a lot of us, and pretty much everybody was heading towards editing jobs in government.
Jill: Can you just tell people what a terminal MA is?
Brenna: Oh, yeah. Sure. So a terminal MA is a Master’s program that doesn’t follow up with a PhD. So there’s fewer and fewer of them now?
Jill: Yeah, they’re not as common.
Brenna: No. And so usually the MA is typically thought of as like a stepping stone into the PhD. But when you go to a program that is terminal, it doesn’t have a PhD. It’s tends to be more focused towards sort of practical applications. And once again, I got to the end of my MA and I thought practical applications are not for me as a person. What was great about the PhD program at University of New Brunswick is that the intake every year was four new people. And so I had a really tiny class. In fact, the following year because people went on sabbatical they didn’t feel like they had the support in place, so they didn’t accept anyone the year after. So the program was tiny, you couldn’t get lost. There was a ton of guidance for those things like applying for funding and stuff. And so I think in a larger program, I would not have finished.
Jill: With less support.
Brenna: Yeah, at UNB it was like the most natural thing in the world to actually get through a PhD in four years.
Jill: Yeah, For our listeners, that’s not common. It’s usually not the most natural thing in the world to finish, let alone to finish in four years. I think the average for humanities PhDs is seven.
Brenna: It is, or at least it was then.
Brenna: So yeah, I got through in four years, I was really adamant about not, I have a non-academic spouse. So the idea of going to school past my funding package was just like not something either of us thought with a thing that we could manage to do. But for all kinds of really lucky reasons from the size of the program and the support I had, I did make it through. And I focused on Canadian literature because I was really interested in visual culture and pop culture. And so I had a, I, I focused on Douglas Copeland, who’s a Vancouver based writer and artist for my PhD. And yeah, so that’s, that’s how I came to acquire a PhD in Canadian literature. I wouldn’t say it was like an underlying sort of, I knew I liked teaching and I knew I particularly like university teaching. I had had the opportunity to be a peer mentor from my second year of my undergrad. And it was really that was what was motivating me to finish, I think more than anything now, which fits what I do now, really read off their work in faculty support primarily now.
Jill: So you’ve mentioned an interest in pop culture, and we have already said that one of the podcasts that you do, Hazel and Katness and Harry and Star is focused on team lead and teen pop culture, largely young adult fiction, this kind of thing. I don’t know if that’s your first podcast. I know it predates You Got This, but I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you became a podcaster and tell me a bit about the podcasts you’re involved with now, do a shameless plug if you want. So what brought you into the world of podcasting?
Brenna: Yeah, that’s a great question and that I had kind of forgotten. It’s built they’ve read your question because I was like, Oh yeah, Hazel and Katness and Harry and Star is my first podcast. No, it wasn’t my first podcast actually.
Jill: Oh, okay.
Brenna: So way back in the day in grad school, we hosted a very tiny English grad student conference that ended up ballooning like out-of-control and was way bigger than we expected. And we have lots of people join us. And so we, we made a podcast then for that project just as a way of connecting to the speakers before they came to Frederickton, letting them know what to expect, all that kinda stuff. So I had this little early experience with podcasting and had really enjoyed it. But like, you know, that was 2008, maybe it was sort of before podcasting was a thing that people did within the academy. And then I got hired at Douglas College in 2010. And at the time, Peter Wilkins and David, right, we’re making a podcast to go alongside their blog. They had this scholarly conversation about comics blog called Graphixia. And they were doing an episode while they were doing a blog series and a podcast episode about the comic Louis Riel. And they were like, Hey, we just hired Brenna and she is a Canadianist. Let’s make her come on the show. So I did a blog post for that series and I didn’t episode of the podcast with them and then I just sort of never stopped hanging out with them. So I became a contributor to Graphixia and participated in our podcasts there. And that was really fun, super one-off. So we would kind of make them as we had time and interest and ability and it changed shape. We did a video podcast for a while, but it gave me an opportunity to play with a lot of different ways of thinking about podcasting in the scholarly space, which I really appreciated. And then when I was on maternity leave, my pal Joe, who was just kinda getting off the ground as a critic in Toronto. He’s been writing about film and pop culture for a long time and he was, at that point, he just become, I think, Rotten Tomatoes certified and he’d gotten kind of all these credentials in place and he wanted to expand what he was doing in the critical space just to get some experience. And he said, “We should make podcast.” I said, “yeah, all right”. He said, “What should we do it about?” And I said, “I dunno. I know books and movies. Maybe we should do something about adaptation.” And then Joe very smartly pointed out that books are really long, but teen books are really fast to read. And so we decided, okay, we’ll focus on young adult literature and film adaptations.
Jill: Little more manageable.
Brenna: Little more manageable. And that project came at exactly the right time. I was, as I say, on maternity leave and really missing my conversations with students about books. It was also the right project for helping me understand quite a few things about podcasting, like having a regular release schedule and how you build community and how you reach out to larger community. And it also really opened up my thinking about what scholarship in the podcasting space can look like. I’ve got a Ph.D. Joe is ABD, so somebody who has done all the coursework and not completed a dissertation. So we both have this like academic background to the way we approached criticism. But we also like to laugh a lot and we also like to comment on maybe more frivolous things. And so the podcast became a space where we often draw, on like, scholars and critics and theoretical perspectives on the show, without it ever being a “scholarly podcast,” you can’t see me listeners, but I’m making air quotes with my fingers. And that was fantastic because yeah, that regular really schedule that building of community and that fusing of the scholarly with the fun or the frivolous became something that really appealed to me as a way to use this medium, to educate, to engage, and to help people maybe think more critically about the media they’re consuming. So then I got hired at Thompson Rivers University as our educational technologies coordinator. Which is a fantastic job. It’s just a wildly fantastic job and a weird job because it’s a tenure-track faculty role with no teaching. So it’s faculty support predominantly, although I do get to work with students on these kinds of projects too. And it’s given me time to develop things. So I’m working on a SSHRC-funded podcast project that is part of a larger network that’s trying to maybe build out some of that infrastructure for scholarly podcasting so that it can go through processes of peer review, that kind of thing. And then the pandemic hit.
Brenna: And I had this community that I was really just introducing myself to you. So I was hired as our educational technologies coordinator in August of 2019. So I’d been in there for seven months when it was like, OK, and now we’re pivoting 500 faculty fully online. And there’s two of us. Let’s go!
Jill: And your the ed tech support.
Brenna: Yeah. Just a little bit busy. And that summer was really frantic, but it was also really fun because we did three workshops a week. We have a 100 people out at every workshop that, virtually obviously, just helping people understand like what good online pedagogy looked like and what practices should be in place and it was really fun. And then the fall was about to hit. And I knew that people wouldn’t have the bandwidth for that kind of programming anymore.
Jill: They wouldn’t be able to drop in three times a week and also run all their own classes and yeah.
Brenna: Yeah. And the semester was about to hit everybody like a ton of bricks.
Brenna: The best thing about that frantic energized programming was that we built a real little community of people who really cared about these issues and I didn’t want to lose that. And so, totally ill-advised, considering the work involved, I decided to make a weekly podcast about teaching and learning within the pandemic as a way to sustain that community. And it’s been really fun. I’ve gotten to talk to people every week. I interview someone different on-campus about teaching and learning, or about students services, or about some issue to do with education on campus. And It’s been a real privilege to meet all these different people across the community, but also to sort of offer this like what I hope is a little space where we can talk about our vulnerabilities and our frailties and our fears in the midst of like an education system that I frankly feel has really dipped into the toxic positivity realm in the last year, right?
Jill: Continually thanking us for our resilience.
Brenna: Yes. Would you like another yoga webinar?
Jill: Right? Right! Wellness.
Brenna: It’s been, you know, I think a lot about Sara Ahmed right now and the danger of naming complaint, right? The danger of being the voice that wants to talk about the problems, but also the intense community that can be built if there’s a space where people feel like those frailties are, are . . .
Brenna: Honored. Yeah, I like that word, it’s a good word. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last, oh my God, almost two years. Just making a weekly podcast.
Jill: That’s the You Got This podcast.
Brenna: That’s You Got This. Yeah, and it’s definitely a niche audience. I think about half our listeners are within the TR, your community and half are outside. But I’m pretty sure everybody’s in higher ed in some way. And it’s really been about sort of like, touching base, just letting people know that it’s okay to be flailing and struggling. And here are some tips to kinda get you through.
Jill: So I think most of the podcasts that you make are pretty feminist or have feminist themes that you draw upon in them. So I’ve listened to, You Got This and Hazel and Katness and Harry and Star. And I’ve noticed the brain and themes of sex and gender. You talk about misogyny and queer theory and particularly in the You Got This podcast, you often reference feminist ethics of care when talking about pedagogy. So what are some of the benefits of being a feminist podcaster?
Brenna: I love that question because I’ve never thought about it before. Everything I do is pretty explicitly feminist. I think that particularly if ethics of care thinking shapes your work, it’s hard to do anything that’s not explicitly feminist. And I get a lot of pleasure, I guess, in forcing feminist discourse into spaces like tech, like educational technologies in particular, where those conversations haven’t traditionally been welcome or, or just haven’t even been considered, right? So that’s a huge part of what I do and I think there’s a huge benefit to being willing to have difficult conversations with people. There’s huge risk as well, obviously. I think about it a lot as an untenured faculty member still really early in my career. But I do think that being willing to have conversations is critical for the role that I fill at TRU, which is the people have to be able to talk to me about where they think they’re failing. They have to be able to talk to me about where they see problems. They have to be able to talk to me about what’s working and what’s not working. And I think that having an explicitly feminist frame around that also makes it so that I don’t walk into any conversation assuming what people should or should not know about the technology. I try to be really open about how we’re all learning to do this in a new space, in a new moment. And that those questions are really critical. And I think feminist perspectives are what set me up to do that work well. I don’t know how you have conversations with people about these kinds of very delicate vulnerable issues, like talking about teaching is so paradoxically vulnerable, right? Because on the one hand, I think to most people out in the world, teaching looks like a really public performance, right? It’s this thing that you do in front of people. You don’t, you don’t teach by yourself, right? There’s other humans in the room and they’re watching. But that the choices that we make in the classroom say something incredibly fundamental about who we are as people. And I also think the books we choose to read and the way we respond to them also say something really fundamental about who we are as people. And so, there’s something about feminist thinking in particular, and particularly ethics of care that makes those conversations I think more possible.
Jill: I think there’s one thing that you said that makes me think that a feminist perspective or a feminist lens is really helpful here is this idea of kind of meeting people where they are, like the importance of plurality, that there isn’t just one narrative that we hang our pedagogy on. Or hang our reading of a piece of literature on. And this, this contextualism, that it’s important where people are coming from. And it’s important to be open to understanding where they’re coming from, which is a part of ethics of care. But it’s not, like many different feminist theories and frameworks have this idea of plurality and contextualism as very central to them.
Jill: So you kind of alluded to this in answering that question about the benefits of being a feminist podcaster, you said that there was a risk. So what kind of drawbacks or risks or concerns do you have putting yourself out there as a feminist podcaster?
Brenna: Being a woman on the Internet has not gotten less scary.
Jill Yeah, right.
Brenna: I say that even as I recognize all kinds of privileges that insulate me, I’m untenured, but I am protected by academic freedom. I’m white, I’m middle-class for sure. I’m protected by all kinds of privileges around the law and my understanding of it, I sort of know the line that I can tip toe right up to without crossing. Like, there’s all kinds of things that insulate me, but it’s still very scary to be publicly online. And I have been publicly online for a long time. Not that anybody listening to this, like knows who I am or anything, but back in 2011,
Jill: They might.
Brenna: Back in 2011, I started writing for a blog called Book Riot. Book Riot ended up being a huge part of my life because after I left that space as a writer, my husband started working there and he’s now the director of operations for Book Riot. So what’s important to know about Book Riot is that in 2011, it was an explicitly feminist, explicitly anti-racist place to write about books and literature. And that seems like kind of duh in 2022, maybe where we, I think hopefully think of the humanities as a space that embraces those things. But we used to get such vitriol a criticism about like not covering the classics enough and like, how dare you not read more dead white men and such. And I regularly got hate mail, hate tweets online. And that time in my life really shaped a lot of my social media practices. Like I don’t put my son’s face or name or birthday anywhere online. Mostly because I’m much less public now than I was then, but I don’t think I would survive him being used against me. And so I had to make really concrete choices around that when he was born, which thankfully most people in my life have really respected. And I think just the fact of having to think about those things or drawbacks for any person, but particularly any woman who speaks about feminism on any kind of public stage, of any kind of audience size. As Book Riot grew, you know, It’s now the biggest book site in North America. It’s bigger than New York Times books, it’s bigger than any of those spaces. And as it grew, that vitriol increased and it’s something that the folks who manage the community over there have always been on the front lines. I’ve, I’ve always just been really aware of what people will use the anonymity of the internet to do. And then in my own work, I regularly stick my head above the parapet on pretty much every issue on a podcast that I then record for posterity with my name attached to it. I’m super aware of the risks that that represents. And I do it anyway. But I totally understand why lots of people choose not to.
Jill: Yeah. I think that encapsulates a lot of what I’ve been thinking about. Who the Internet is a safer space for like, comparatively. I mean, it’s kind of cruel in general, but there are definitely people who take bigger risks. Risks both in terms of naming yourself as a feminist, but also in terms of your identity and how identifiable you are in that identity versus being anonymous. And yeah.
Brenna: But you know, Jill, I think about this. For our generation of academics in particular, we’ve always known that to be true, right? Like we are a generation of academics who, who were raised in a, in a post Montreal Massacre world, right? And yeah, we came of age within the university, just as people were finally starting to admit 15-20 years after the fact that Marc Lepine wasn’t shooting women, he was shooting feminists.
Brenna: We’ve always known that, that political stance is dangerous and that, that political stances just as dangerous within the university as it is anywhere else. And I think that you can either recognize that risk and say, okay, but I also have all of these other privileges at it’s my responsibility to use them. Or you can recognize that risk and say, I’m going to keep my head down. And I totally get why people choose either path, like a 100 percent. But I think it was easier maybe for previous generations to see that as exclusively a gender issue. And I think it has this really critical political dynamic that we denied for a long time.
Brenna: Which women are found threatening?
Brenna: Is just as much of a question, I think.
Jill: So. Let’s bring in a little bit of feminist theory to our discussion of podcasts. Brenna, how do you understand intersectionality?
Brenna: I definitely came of age in like Tumblr literary theory. Something that I think about a lot. The ways in which Tumblr both made terms like intersectionality, super accessible to people. And, in a super non intersectional move like erased authorship from those concepts, right? So like, right, I knew, and I think this is true of most people now. I knew intersectionality before. I knew Kimberlé Crenshaw, which is wild if you think about it.
Brenna: Because the concept of intersectionality being that there are these multiplicities of oppressions that impact upon individuals. And that intersectionality is a very specific term to explain the experience of Black women, both when they navigate Black community and when they navigate feminist community. And we’ve just taken it to mean like everybody’s got a bunch of stuff going on. You know. I think expanding the notion of intersectionality to recognize things like the oppressions that come with queerness and with disability in particular, which is so often left out of feminist discourse, I think that, I think that is all really important. But I’m always mindful because of my own ignorance in understanding the term, think about where it came from and who’s struggle it is meant to elucidate most specifically.
Jill: Yeah. I don’t know if I want to go down the rabbit hole of what the internet does to authorship and terms. But I think that’s really important because there has been some pushback about the way in which Crenshaw coined this term and develop this theory. And that authorship and the ideas and the fact that intersectionality was specifically a term that Crenshaw used to describe the experiences of Black women is being lost in the kind of plethora of the Internet discussions of intersectionality. So I really thank you for bringing that to our attention.
Brenna: It’s not to say that it’s not useful to think about how someone with a disability is doubly impacted by other oppressions in their life. It’s not to say that that’s not useful. It’s just that it’s, it’s so easy to take this existing word and blow it up to a point where it means everything in a way that ends up further marginalizing I think the very people and particularly very scholarly perspective that it was meant to showcase and protect.
Jill: Yep. So do you think podcasting is a fruitful medium for the exploration of ideas of intersectionality?
Brenna: Yeah, I do. I think that podcasting has the benefit of still being a relatively accessible way of engaging with the world. I say relatively because there are all kinds of ways in which podcast seem to want to reinscribe like all of the limitations I got, I think for example, of how many podcasts have transcription. And the reason for that is because transcription is hard and super time-consuming and labor-comsuming. Like my fun podcast doesn’t have transcription. My work podcast does has same day transcription. And that’s something that I think about a lot like who am I involving in the conversation and who am I leaving out of the conversation when I make those choices, which are a 100 percent entirely and exclusively decisions made around workload. So, yes, I think that podcasting can be a fruitful medium for the exploration of intersectionality. There’s also a lot of white dudes with podcasts. Like.
Brenna: And I think that during the pandemic in particular, like every bro with a 150 bucks in his pocket went out and got a yeti and started a podcast. And I’m think about that a lot. And even just if I look through my own podcast, the list and much like my own reading list, if I’m not mindful and I’m not thoughtful, it’s really easy to end up with, like I only listen to podcasts by white people because there are so many of them out there. And so I think that the podcast medium can be really useful for intersectionality, but like any other medium, you have to be conscious about it. Something that I’m really excited about with the work that we’re doing with the Amplify Podcasting Network is oftentimes things like podcasts or blog posts, the ways in which we make scholarship accessible. They’re sort of like they’re fun extras. They’re things that you do off the side of your desk because you think it’s meaningful, right? Or because you have a community that you want to reach. And disproportionately, the work of reaching out to community is done by women and Black and Indigenous and scholars of color and queer scholars and disabled scholars. Those are the people who do the work typically of reaching out to community and engaging. So for a long time, it’s been kind of like, this double jeopardy sort of situation where it’s like, “Yeah, good. You wrote that article, but that’s what counts. Like, it’s nice that you also made a podcast and connected with community. It’s nice that you went to visit that classroom in the community where you did your research. It’s nice that you wrote blog posts, but that’s not what counts.” I think given that we know who tends to do that work, part of remaking the institution in a way that’s more equitable is to find ways to make that work count. And so part of what trying to establish a peer reviewing process for podcasting is all about is making the space more attractive for scholars who approach work from an intersectional perspective by making that work count within the institution. And on the one hand, I want to be like, “it doesn’t matter if it counts, it’s important,” but like we have a finite number of hours in the day never has that been more clear to me than through the pandemic.
Brenna: So yes, I think that the low barrier to entry makes podcasting good medium for people who need or want to tell stories outside of the typical confines of the academy. And so often those stories are intersectional in nature. But I don’t think like the podcast as a structure is by default intersectional because I’m just doing the math in my head. Like who are the top three podcasters for since podcasting existed, right? It was Rickey Gervais. And then it was Adam Corolla. And now it’s Joe Rogan. So like, no, this structure itself is not intersectional by nature.
Jill: Oh that’s harsh.
Brenna: Podcasting, I love you, but you are not without your problems.
Jill: Totally fair. Harsh but fair.
Breann: That’ll be the title of my autobiography.
Jill: So one thing that you mentioned when you were talking about podcasts and intersectionality and accessibility is particularly issues of transcripts and transcription, right? And I’ve heard you talk about this before. That not only are transcripts quite labor intensive for somebody to produce for their podcasts, especially for people who are doing it off the side of their desk, or doing it for love. Because as you’ve said, institutions, higher education institutions do not really recognize this work at this time. But one thing that makes transcripts a little bit faster is starting with an auto-caption transcript and then kind of editing it rather than having to write the transcript yourself, right? But often these, these tools for auto-captioning are trapped behind paywalls, which kind of conflicts with the low barrier to access thing we were just talking about with podcasts. And there are some other quirks about auto-captioning that we may want to talk about as well in terms of whose voices get auto-captioned better. So can you talk about the process of transcripts and accessibility?
Brenna: Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a number of tools out there now that do help where we’re recording in Zencastr right now, the Zencastr transcription tools is a new edition that I’m very stoked about because it takes like one whole step of my workflow, which was to take my audio file, upload it to our institutional Kaltura installation and download the transcript that was generated from that
Jill:. That’s what I’m doing.
Brenna: Yes. So the transcript is fine. It’s about on par with most sort of mid-level transcription options. I think that actually the YouTube transcripts are a lot better, but I feel very conflicted given the content of a lot of what I do and podcasting of just like uploading that without someone’s permission to Google and being like, “here you go, you just do what you want with this?”
Brenna: One thing I noticed when I started that process using our tool, our Kaltura tool is first God love Kaltura. It’s, it’s not smart. So one of the things that I find most hilarious as you will see when you edit this episode is that Kaltura doesn’t know it’s own name, like it’s not sentient. So. . .
Jill: Oh that’s going to be fun. [Reader, it wasn’t fun]
Brenna: Yeah, it’s going to think I’m saying culture-uh every time. Culture-uh, culture-uh.
Jill: Thank you for saying Kaltura and culture-uh. So now I have to do both.
Brenna: Enjoy! It’s gonna be fun for you. [Again, reader, it wasn’t] So, you know, that’s one thing, right? Is just the fact that we have come to, I think, expect technology to adapt and learn and some tools do, and some tools don’t. So that’s one thing. But the thing that I noticed that actually made me mad enough to tweet, not that, I mean not that that’s a high bar or threshold. But is the culture thinks that everything I say is a question.
Brenna: Because it doesn’t know how to deal with uptalk.
Brenna: Which is a very feminine mode of speech.
Jill: So I know you’ve just done it twice, but can you just tell people what upbeat talk is?
Brenna: Yeah, so uptalk is the tendency to turn everything you say into a question. It’s that little up at the end that reads like a question mark. And it’s funny, I’ve gone through different phases in my professional life. There was a time in my life, I will say a time before I spent hours every week editing my own voice, when I thought that I needed to like, I thought I needed to excise up talk from my verbal ticks. I don’t feel that way anymore. I really push back against the kinds of sort of business or professional expectations that are really rooted in a, in a male default. So the other famous one, of course, is vocal fry.
Jill: And both of these tend to be perceived or read as more feminine up speak and vocal fry.
Brenna: Yeah, they particularly tend to be tracked in millennial women’s voices. Although there are some really interesting studies out there that suggest that men both uptalk and fry it particularly millennial men just as much, but that listeners don’t hear it in the same kind of way.
Jill: Oh, interesting.
Brenna: We uptalk for a reason. I can hear myself doing it in really controversial department meetings. Not anymore, but at a previous institution where I worked where our department meetings were often very controversial. I could feel myself up talking every point that I made. It’s a way of making your discourse sound less threatening, right? Because it’s reframes assertions as question.
Brenna: And I don’t, I don’t love that. I do it, in that context, but I understand where it’s coming from. When I talk on my podcast about controversial or troubling issues, when I’m, when I’m putting forward questions that are questions of people in power. . . I just did it there . . . I go into a natural uptalk as a way of softening what I’m saying. And I used to try to excise it. I don’t anymore. I think that allowing those verbal tics to be a natural part of how humans communicate is feminist praxis. It’s a way of embracing all different kinds of discourses into a conversation. And just like I don’t want to tone police someone who sounds angry. I don’t want to tone police someone who was trying to soften what they’re saying, even if I hope they wouldn’t feel that way. A friend of mine, Hannah McGregor, who was a fantastic podcaster and someone who talks a lot about feminism in the podcasting space, she wants referred to my general demeanor as weaponized gentleness.
Jill: That’s lovely.
Brenna: Isn’t it? I really like it. You know, I do think that there is a way of having difficult conversations with people that can make up more ground when it comes from a voice that maybe sounds gentler or, or less aggressive or abrasive. Now, there’s all kinds of privilege wrapped up in that, right? There’s a level at which my weaponize gentleness is really weaponized white feminism. And my hope is really that I’ve just targeting it in the right place when I use it.
Jill: Can you use that weapon for good?
Brenna: Can I use that weapon for good, right. Like can I use that weapon to not like call the cops to a barbecue, for example?
Brenna: But what’s fascinating to me to come back to the technical question here, technological question here is Kaltura is trying to as best it can replicate human speech, right? To replicate human grammar in particular. It’s the hardest part for any of these transcription services to get the grammar right. One of the things I really like actually about the Zencastr one is that it’s better at grammar, it’s much better at actual grammar.
Jill: And it’s behind a paywall.
Brenna: Yes it is, right? Yeah, exactly. I mean, I didn’t use it for years. All this to say, that ability to capture natural grammar is really hard. And I can acknowledge that it’s really hard while also saying that it’s very clear who Klatrua’s transcription software is tested on, right? Because it’s clearly not tested on anyone who is up talking as a normal part of their conversational patterns. It’s, it, the normative voice that Kaltura is based on is likely not a millennial female. Right?
Brenna: And this has much farther reaching implications for much more marginalized voices that myself, right? If you’re interviewing anybody with any kind of accent, that isn’t a British accent, it’s very difficult to use an AI transcriber at all. You almost have to pay for or yourself do a human transcription of that work. So I feel like my example is like a funny and frivolous way of getting at a larger conversation, which is who defines normative discourse for these AI tools that are increasingly becoming a critical part of, like, how we exist in the world. Like, it’s one thing to be annoyed while you caption something. It’s another thing to be trying to explain a problem to a robot. And the robot doesn’t understand what you’re saying and you can’t get through that gatekeeper to the real human being to help, right?
Jill: Yeah. So it feels like what we have here is for accessibility, we need to have transcripts, but the tools we are using to help aid and cut down on the work of creating the transcripts, work that is disproportionately being done by women and people of color and other marginalized groups, and then we have tools that don’t serve the groups who are doing the work to make the podcast accessible.
Brenna: I feel like you just described the internet.
Jill: I feel that these problems go well beyond podcasting and come up or have come up in a number of other episodes of this show. But it’s worth highlighting that it happens here.
Brenna: It is worth highlighting and it’s also worth highlighting, you know, not to be, not to be the whitest whitefeminist and appropriate this language. But like, you know, when Audre Lorde says like, “the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house,” I think we see that in the tech space so often. Whether it’s through like AI proctoring or AI transcription or other kinds of voice recognition tools, virtual assistants. We know who those are meant to serve and we know more importantly, whose labor those are meant to save. And they were never meant to save the labor of women, of queer and disabled people, of Black people, of Indigenous people like those were, these tools were not designed to save that labor. And it’s really important to recognize that because it’s, if nothing else, it’s how we begin to demand better, right? And, and what better looks like? I don’t know. I was just reading a press release from a surveillance Proctoring company and they were like, “We recognize black students skin now,” it’s like, Oh, great. First of all, the bar was extremely low. Second of all, it’s like what is this like EDI surveillance. Just, you know, we need to think about what we mean by better before we, we walk too far down that path. But I do think these critiques are important to point out.
Jill: So building off of these critiques, can you think about and talk to us about what it means to say podcasting is feminist praxis. And when we think about the technological tools we use for podcasting, what might be some of the limitations to thinking of podcasting as feminist praxis.
Brenna: So I wanted to start by saying I think podcasting can be feminist praxis. So just as we sort of talked about before, like what are the limits of that, of the medium itself? I think it’s really important. So I’ll give you an example of what I see as the feminist praxis possibilities of podcasting. I’ve been writing and thinking a lot lately about non-normative bodies. And I’ve been particularly thinking about pregnant and postpartum and lactating and miscarrying bodies in the academy. And, and where the spaces exist for those bodies? When I was on maternity leave with my son, this was when I first met Hannah McGregor, she emailed me to ask me if I wanted to be on her podcast and I was like,” Oh, well, I would love to, but I’m home all day with my baby and he’s not quiet. So maybe in a year.” And she said, “No, no, no. I’ll come to you. And we’ll do the podcast in your apartment and your baby will make baby noises, and that will be fine.” And that to me was a real example of what the meeting of feminist theory and feminist practice looks like. What praxis looks like. Because it wasn’t just about, we weren’t just meeting to talk about feminist approaches to parenting, which is mostly what we ended up talking about in that conversation. But Hannah was meeting me where I was both in my body, like, I couldn’t go, I was primarily breastfeeding a four-month old could not go very far from my house at that moment in my life, right?
Brenna: And also welcoming all that comes with that inclusion, which includes baby noises or as I say to people often it includes little kid noises. It includes pet noises, often for many of us, right? Like being able to see the whole person as a value, not just what they have to offer intellectually and to recognize that what they have to offer intellectually is inextricably linked to all of those aspects of being in the body.
Jill: I love that.
Brenna: Podcasting is unique in that you can actually capture all of that, right. So, I recently published a book chapter and in a footnote, I disclosed my miscarriage. It made sense contextually. It wasn’t like they are reading a Flaubert or something. It made sense in the context of what I was doing. But it was still this conscious choice that I had to make in the moment. I stressed about it, I lost sleep about it after submitting. And it still requires a reader to read the footnotes, which the Lord knows we don’t all do. When I record a podcast and my kiddo is home because he’s got to COVID symptoms like he will have for probably the rest of my life.
Jill: Right. So he’s isolating.
Jill: Been there.
Brenna: His noises in the background are captured on the podcast and they’re captured in a way that can’t be, often can’t be edited out. Right? If he’s babbling away about something he’s watching on the iPad while I’m talking, I can’t actually edit that it without losing my own thought. So that, that inextricable illness, that, that linkedness, that true embodied nature in this totally disembodied medium of audio, paradoxically, it is able to be captured. And I like to think about the ways in which that expands beyond my sphere. So what if a podcast captures in and amongst the theorizing and thinking? What if it captures sounds of pain, right? What if that theorizing in that thinking is expressed by an accented voice, is expressed in non-standard English terms? The ways in which the podcast allows us to both capture that in an audio format and share it with the listener in a way that can’t be skipped over or ignored, I think is extremely powerful. It also for all the reasons we talked about before, is extremely vulnerable, right?
Brenna: And I think that we can’t recognize one without the other because there’s there, there is privilege and speaking and there’s privilege and being it be feeling capable of doing that. I remember I was doing a workshop that for summer from this room, which is where I’ve lived for two years, it feels like. And my kiddo was like we in the shot he was playing on the floor. That was when I still thought I could like manage screen time. So he’s on the floor. And someone in the session said, “oh, is this a workshop or a daycare?” And I froze because my first reaction was to be embarrassed. My first reaction was to feel shame, right? Like a more professional person would not be in this position.
Brenna: A woman with her ish together would not be in this position. And then I was like, “oh, actually no, no, no, we’re not doing this.” And it became a real crystallizing moment for me in terms of how I guide faculty to recognize what it means to be in someone’s home space with your face and your camera and your recording devices and what your responsibilities are. But I will never forget that my first my affective lizard brain reaction was to feel shame. And that’s what I’m pushing back against when I talk about capturing this in these kinds of mediums.
Jill: To like reach for that professionalism persona, right?
Jill: And I think you said something really interesting about how this is both powerful in terms of what we can capture through the audio medium, and it’s also very vulnerable. And I mean, I don’t have a theory here, but I feel like you can’t be powerful without being vulnerable. Because you can’t be powerful in this kind of feminist way without being authentically who you are, without having like that, with removing that veneer of professional persona that were also encouraged to cultivate. To go back to your discussion of grad school, I don’t know what yours was like, but I was super encouraged to cultivate a professional persona and basically sell myself on what was literally called a job market, right? And I feel like this DIY audio medium allows us to, to strip that away and be more vulnerable in a more authentic way. And it doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to. I mean, you’ve listed a number of problems, but that opportunity is there. Maybe.
Brenna: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny. You’re also reminding me of the importance of models for this kind of practice and behavior. I had a great grad school experiences in my PhD, my Masters, as I’ve already noted, bit of a disaster, but in my PhD, the first time I met my supervisor, she was meant to be put on bed rest. She was like so pregnant, she didn’t fit in the booth where we met at this restaurant to chat. And that was my introduction to her, was deeply rooted in her experience of her own body in that moment. From her example, I went on to be the person who had always had a baby at conferences. It felt like for like a three-year stretch was just always a baby on me. I’ve you know, I have I have nursed in a panel. I have done all that and it’s so critical to remember that you have to see it, to imagine it. And what that seeing looks like it’s different for different people. And what that example needs to be is different, which is why we need to have so many different people having these experiences and sharing of themselves. And why that’s so critical. But like it never occurred to me not to take my son to Congress. It just never occurred to me to not do it. And so I did it and became an advocate as a result for proper childcare at Congress and all those kinds of things like that was all part of that larger desire. But it started with good modelling. And I think podcasting, for people who don’t have those mentors concretely in their life, like I was lucky enough to have, podcasting again because of that low barrier to entry, because of that DIY nature and because of the kinds of people who are attracted to making scholarly podcasts, I think we have an opportunity to be those models in places where the models don’t exist.
Jill: So Brenna, are there any last thoughts about podcasting as feminist praxis that you’d like to leave our listeners with.
Brenna: I think everyone should make a podcast. Not really, but I do hope that we increasingly consider podcasting as another route to Knowledge Mobilization, which I’m using in my big fancy capitalized letters. I think if there’s one thing, I think I already said if there’s one thing I learned and the pandemic, so I’m going to say if there’s another thing I’ve learned in the pandemic, it is the power of audio, in a very visually noisy world. I want to watch a TED talk or Zoom lecture like I want another hole in my head. But I will listen to almost anything that crosses my path. And I think that recognizing that not everything has to be a video and not everything has to be dressed in the trappings of sort of scholarly legitimacy to be powerful and to engage the world. I still want to make those changes to force the academy to recognize this labor because I think that’s a critical piece. But until we get there, I hope people will consider what audio can offer to listeners and consider it mindfully. Consider ways to make your audio offerings accessible and really thinking that piece through also. But it’s really easy to get started. And it’s really rewarding space to play. And I just hope that anyone listening to this, I, even though I was a bit doom and gloom about some aspects of podcasting as a structure I hope you feel encouraged to play because I really do think it’s a worthwhile thing to do.
This episode of Gender, Sex and Tech continued a conversation begun in emails and chat boards, and through a few online brain-picking sessions with Dr. Brenna Clarke Gray.
I would like to thank Brenna for joining me today, for this fun and helpful conversation.
And I’d like to thank The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival for including my podcast this year. The carnival includes many fantastic episodes from academic podcasters, so I hope you will check out all the episodes. Links can be found in the shownotes.
And thank you, listener, for joining me for this episode of Gender Sex and Tech, Continuing the Conversation. If you would like to continue the conversation further, please reach out on Twitter @tech_gender, or consider creating your own essay, podcast, video or other media format to continue the conversation in your own voice.
Music provided by Epidemic Sound. Aid with transcription provided by the Marc Sanders Foundation.
This podcast is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from Douglas College in New Westminster BC.
That’s it for this season. But I’ll be back in Summer of 2023 with a new line up of episodes exploring technology through an intersectional feminist lens. Have a good year everyone. Bye!